Saturday, March 26, 2011

‘...keeping alive the critical analysis of the social world was and remains an important program’: Stanley Aronowitz and Cultural Studies

B. Ricardo Brown
Associate Professor of Cultural Studies
Department of Social Science & Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute

Honoring and Engaging Aronowitz: Remaking the Knowledge Factory
Left Forum

Pace University
New York City
March 18 – 20, 2011

Honoring and Engaging Aronowitz: Rethinking Labor and the Labor Movement
E326, O. Panel Session 7—Sunday 3:00 p.m. – 4:50 p.m.
Dr. B. Ricardo Brown—Pratt Institute
Dr. Michelle Fine—CUNY Graduate Center
Michael Menser—Brooklyn College/CUNY
Mike Fabricant–Hunter/CUNY Graduate Center, PSC-CUNY
Panel Abstract: This panel will engage the work of Stanley Aronowitz with respect to social and political movements and the current crisis in higher education. Particular focus will be on the idea of the university as a knowledge factory and the role of students, faculty, communities, and movements to not only combat privatization and defunding but to make the university a place where learning and research serve the public, cultivate solidarity, and make 21st century education democratic, inclusive, combative, and liberatory.

See also:

Honoring and Engaging Aronowitz: Rethinking Labor and the Labor movement
L. Panel Session 5—Sunday 10:00 a.m. – 11:50 a.m., LHN
Ed Ott—Murphy Institute for Worker Education
Michael Pelias—Long Island University
Penny Lewis—Murphy Institute for Worker Education
Phil Nicholson—Nassau Community College
William DiFazio—St. Johns University, Situations Collective
Panel Abstract: An engagement and critical dialogue with the work of Stanley Aronowitz on the "labor question" and the failure of institutionalized labor today.

‘...keeping alive the critical analysis of the social world was and remains an important program’: Stanley Aronowitz and Cultural Studies

I came to CUNY to work with Stanley. I had dropped out of graduate school at Syracuse University --- a brief but inevitably important exploration of Cultural and Historical Geography. While working as a law librarian, I read Stanley’s Crisis in Historical Materialism and was immediately taken by both his range of knowledge and his critical approach to knowledge and everyday life. So As others have said, I too led a rather strange life at CUNY, where I would work the reference desk until 4:15 and then leave to walk the 10 minutes to the old Grad Center on 42nd Street. So within 15 minutes, I would go from the very belly of the Beast and into Stanley’s classroom. The contrast could not be greater, of course, both intellectually and ethically.

To speak on Stanley and Cultural Studies. Well, I’ll not speak about his many books and essays on the subject, nor about his acknowledged place in the reception of Cultural Studies in the Americas. I think this is well known to us all and would take a lecture series more than a short talk! And as a member of a unionized faculty and of the grievance committee, I know his influence extends into other areas of higher education as well, but I’ll leave that for others to discuss. At Pratt, we are one big union in a small sense, with FT, PT and a special category for tenured adjuncts all under the same contract.

While I was a Graduate Student at CUNY, the name of the Center for Cultural Studies was changed to the Center for Culture, Technology and Work. At the time I did not think that this was a very good idea. Cultural Studies was just consolidating its position within the academy, after all. What was really happening was that it had become a career path as well.

In fact, a reading of Stanley’s Roll Over Beethoven will make this transformation quite clear. It is, by the way, simply the best historical genealogy of Cultural Studies ever done, especially the first few chapters.
In his teaching, Stanley pointed many of us towards a way of thinking about Cultural Studies that is firmly rooted in Critical Theory and the critique of everyday life. This version of Cultural Studies, as he says of the genealogy of Cultural Studies in his Roll over Beethoven, at its best, Cultural Studies sought to “transcend the boundaries of formal academic sites” to be “not anti-disciplinary [or ‘interdisciplinary’] but transdsciplinary” in our approach to the “authority of knowledge.”

But the name change alerts us to two things about Cultural Studies that Stanley taught his students.
1] Cultural Studies transgressed disciplinary boundaries. But also that because it had no disciplinary boundaries to defend, and it was rather defenseless and easily overwhelmed and colonized by the more established, though crisis ridden, academic fields.

2] The second insight that Stanley gave us was that the Critique of Cultural Studies is not just an external one, but that it demands a self-critique as well. So, it was not that Stanley did not supply a definition of Cultural Studies, but that all such efforts can be contested. Certainly our work at Pratt did not contain enough self-criticism. Our efforts opened the work to administrative imperatives and concerns, and thus we undermined our own work.

Suddenly “everyone does Cultural Studies” became a mantra. It was a phrase especially useful to those who preferred to ignore the political commitments of Cultural Studies in favor of its potential as a part of the cultural industry, with niche markets in the various traditional disciplines that embraced the idea that “everyone does Cultural Studies”. Cultural Studies was not undefined, but came to be defined in ways that suited the needs of the marketplace.

Two examples: The bookstore and the Program at Pratt

[Expand as an aside:
Cultural Studies Develops a Market: Book stores in the 1990s, the realists as well as the creation of a market for CS. No longer marketing books as Sociology, Anthropology, or Literary Theory and Comp. Lit, but as Cultural Studies.]

It was at this same time that we established the Program in Cultural Studies at Pratt.
And after three years, purely for reasons of marketing, the name of the program was changed to Critical and Visual Studies. Apparently at the time, according to Admissions, College students knew about CS, but not High Schoolers.

Pratt’s program, which ironically I helped create and have recently begun to again direct, is a Microcosm of the American reception or construction of Cultural Studies, and a good example of the reasons why many have walked away from the contest over its meaning, since its meaning is now restricted to its deployment by various traditional fields. I notice that Stanley rarely uses the phrase in his writings over the past decade, just as I have noticed that many of his students no longer embrace the term, either.

What has drawn us away from Cultural Studies are the very interests that once drew us to it:  an encounter with Materialism, the legacy of Marx, and the Critical Theory of society and everyday life.

Cultural Studies had as much to do with an approach to the material as it did to any group of theories.
In many ways, our near abandonment of the term Cultural Studies to the markets expresses how we have to constantly reorient our approaches to our studies, teaching, and everyday lives.

As he wrote in Left Turn:
After “...the abandonment of the concrete utopia... keeping alive the critical analysis of the social world was and remains an important program.” (Left Turn: 53)

So, the name change at CUNY was a Sign that I missed. A reminder that Critique is self-referential-- something not all of us appreciated at the time. We might have read Stanley a little closer when he wrote the “most profound stake in the crisis of cultural authority... is the authority of knowledge. Who has the right to determine criteria of validity? Who may speak truth to power? What is the responsibility of intellectuals with respect to their own knowledge?” (Roll Over Beethoven: 9) Once we had the right and authority, we assumed that it was in the hands of “good people.”

Thus, the Critique that we speak of is self-referential both intellectually and in terms of our self: it is about how one lives in and responds to what Horkheimer called the “vicissitudes of everyday life” This is, after all what education is about, developing the means to understand the relations of our many selves to the world.

From where I now sit amid the workings of the Knowledge Factory
Stanley’s intervention as a teacher and major figure in Cultural Studies are, broadly speaking:

A. That knowledge belongs to everyone but is denied to most and so we must constantly find way to subvert the authorities of knowledge and in so doing subvert the authority of the dominant ideologies.

B. That a new educational intervention is better than trying to defend the boundaries of an old one, even one that once held such promise.

C. And finally, understanding our teaching as a critical political intervention is something we got from Aronowitz, and further that our studies and work should express critical interventions on multiple levels. We critique the present because it is what we know while we accumulate knowledge for those who might have a different future.

Thanks, Stanley!