Guest Post by Robert Mejia

Robert shared his thoughts on Lawrence Grossberg’s March 2012 talk at the University of Illinois on the Unit for Criticism’s blog in abbreviated form. Here they are in full (minus the images, which were causing upload problems)!

Who is This “We” That Has Yet to Sing in Our Already Too Familiar Land?

A Response to Larry Grossberg

By Robert Mejia[i]

The affect Larry Grossberg has had on the trajectory of American Cultural Studies should not go unrecognized. As the only U.S. student to have studied at both the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies (under Stuart Hall) and the Institute of Communications Research (under James Carey), Grossberg has lived as the material embodiment of an intellectual exchange that was just beginning to occur in the late-1960s.[ii] His name has come to be associated with several of the most significant publications and conferences within the history of Cultural Studies, from Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988 [conference in 1983]) and Cultural Studies (1991 [conference in 1990]), and he has continued to operate as a significant intellectual force with his long tenure as editor of Cultural Studies (1990-Present) and recent publication of Cultural Studies in the Future Tense (2010), amongst other accomplishments. Hence, it goes without saying that the field of contemporary Cultural Studies is indebted to the early and ongoing work of Larry Grossberg. And yet, though I am fond of much of what Grossberg writes, including much of his recent writings in Cultural Studies in the Future Tense (see Optional Background Readings) and this lecture as well, I cannot help but wonder who is this “we” in the “how can we sing—in a strange land?” And for whom is this land strange?

The significance of this question perhaps becomes clearer when juxtaposed with Aisha Durham’s lecture given as part of the same event (though on the following day), entitled: “Black to the Future: Old School Lessons for a New Hip Hop Generation.” Like Grossberg, Durham expressed concern with the question of the possibility for alternative politics in our contemporary moment. The question, however, was less of “how can we sing” but rather why can this “we” not yet hear those who have already begun to sing? Rephrasing the question as such allows for us to complicate the main themes touched upon during Grossberg’s lecture:

  • We should develop rigorous models capable of maintaining theoretical consistency.
  • We should find means for contemporary counter-culture to enter the popular.
  • We are not yet pessimistic enough to undertake the work that is necessary for grasping the complexity of our contemporary political moment.

Theoretical Consistency

Grossberg characterized the work of much of contemporary critical theory as being opportunistic, in terms of substituting our politics for methodological rigor. His claim is that cultural studies has disavowed alternative paradigms, such as science, when it has proved politically expedient, and yet embraced those same paradigms when the politics of that particular paradigm have shifted towards our favor—regardless of questions of method. This, he believes, has played into the hands of conservative, populist politics, in that our theoretical inconsistency has destabilized any sense of the “real” from which to undertake ethical political action. This is not a claim against theory, per se, but rather against an opportunistic theory which reduces all claims to the real that do not already resonate with one’s own conception of how the real ought to operate as invalid—without simultaneously undertaking the methodological rigor necessary to evaluate one position vis-à-vis another. Though Grossberg’s concern is relevant, I am uncertain if “we” have all had equal ability or desire to operate so opportunistically.

Durham’s presentation reminds the audience that Black Feminism was founded on the premise of a need for recognition. The question for Black Feminist was not necessarily of deconstructing the real—that is, of demonstrating its endless referentiality—but rather of exposing the all-too-concrete effects of the real. For instance, Durham’s example of Erykah Badu walking between a White Woman and Black Man in Window Seat” is not so much a deconstruction of the real, but rather an intervention upon what legitimately counts as the real. I am also reminded of Barbara Christian’s The Race for Theory, in which she expresses concern that the very moment at which “the literature of blacks, women of South America and Africa, etc.” were beginning to receive significant national and international attention is when this “overtly ‘political’ literature was being preempted by a new Western concept which proclaimed that reality does not exist.”[iii] Hence, though I by no means suggest that all Black Feminist would agree with Barbara Christian’s conception of contemporary critical theory, this example provides an opportunity to destabilize the use of “we” in Grossberg’s talk. Barbara Christian, Aisha Durham, and Renato Rosaldo (to name another) have all to various extents suggested that when “we” use “we” uncritically, it often means some combination of White, Male, Western, Middle-to-Upper-Class, able-bodied, Academic Professional, et cetera.[iv]

Entering the Popular

Questioning who this “we” stands for in the talk’s title—“how can we sing—in a strange land?”—matters in terms of Grossberg’s suggestion that contemporary counter-culture is in need of a means for politically engaging the popular. The insinuation of this claim, however, betrays the combination of the “we” that he imagines as constituting the popular; for, as Aisha Durham again illustrates, many populations have not stopped singing. Although I am not a music scholar or historian, from my understanding, much of Rock & Roll was influenced by the music of Black artists from the south, such as Muddy Waters. Hence, it could be argued that what “we” conceive of as counter-culture was at least a partial cooptation of radical politics by much less radical (and, in many cases, overtly commercial) interests. In general, I agree with Grossberg’s contention regarding the limits of an all-or-nothing conception of politics; however, I still believe that it is worth noting that it often seems as though counter-culture is often recognized as existing only when White populations participate.

This assumption, too, illuminates the significance of Durham’s lecture, for her analysis of the reception of Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” illustrates that the question is not so much “how can we sing” but, rather, why can this “we” not yet hear those who have already begun to sing? For those unfamiliar with “Window Seat,” the music video features Erykah Badu walking through the streets of Dallas, singing lyrics such as “I need you to want me / need you to miss me / I need your attention” as she slowly disrobes. Durham explains that Erykah Badu’s music video was inspired by Matt and Kim’s music video for “Lessons Learned.” Whereas Matt and Kim’s nudity in “Lessons Learned” was meant to convey an idea of “just not giving a fuck anymore” and resulted in an apology from the police offers on scene who attempted to break up the filming, Erykah Badu was cited for disorderly conduct and her actions generated a significant amount of controversy.[v] As Durham suggests, the question of singing is not so much a matter of production as it is one of the policing of consumption—that is the “we” who refuse to see those who have already begun to sing.

Optimism of the Will, Pessimism of the Intellect

I will conclude this response to Larry Grossberg’s presentation with a discussion of pessimism. As his lecture came to an end, Paula Treichler asked how “we” can find the political courage to act in a moment so overwhelmed with pessimism about the possibility of any significant effect (in the face of events such as Citizens United). Grossberg’s response was that “we” are not yet pessimistic enough—and here, I would agree. To the extent that the “we” formulated by Grossberg refers to those in possession of some semblance of privilege—whether real or imagined—I do not think that many of those of his intended audience yet carry the sense of desperation needed to undertake the scholarly work necessary to contribute to a larger—i.e., beyond tenure—problem. This is not to propose a false binary between academic work and political or any other kind of work; rather, I suggest that too often graduate students and faculty are taught to think in terms of interesting questions as opposed to necessary questions. Though interesting questions have a place in the academy and are not always separate from those of necessary questions, the stance taken matters. In other words, what is at stake if one is lazy when engaging with an intellectual question—what is at stake? Tenure? No. For we all know that a wrong published answer is worth more than the correct, but unpublished, answer when the question is one of tenure. But when the questions are those of how cuts to Women, Infants and Children (WIC) funding will affect your sister and nephew, or how the economic recovery is affecting your father, and how much you can afford to help support them on a graduate student’s salary, then you had better be damn right when answering your questions—because in moments such as these, one does not have the luxury of getting it wrong and still being right; one must live with the consequences. Until “we,” whomever they may be, understand this—understand that some questions are more than just questions but rather a matter of life—then “we” will continue to produce interesting questions for the tenured (or not) faculty to ponder, but “we” will fail to ask the questions and produce the answers that are needed at this particular moment.


[i] I would like to thank Dr. Aisha Durham and Amanda Murphyao for their feedback and support in the writing of this response. Thank you.

[ii] By the late-1960s, James Carey had begun to read and communicate with Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and other figures associated with British Cultural Studies; see Adams, G. Stuart. “Foreword. In Communication as Culture: Essays in Media and Society, ix-xxiv. New York: Routledge, 2009.

[iii] Barbara Christian. “The Race for Theory.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, edited by Vincent B. Leitch, 2257-2266. New York: Norton, 2001.

[iv] Renato Rosaldo. “Whose Cultural Studies?” American Anthropologist 96, no. 3 (1994): 524-529.

[v] Though it is true that Matt and Kim had a permit for the filming of “Lesson’s Learned,” the permit read along the lines of “Tourists walk through Times Square inappropriately dressed for weather.” Moreover, as Taylor Cohen, co-director of the music video commented, “If we just wrote “Yes, I have a permit” on a napkin, that probably would’ve been OK.” See Ryan Dombal. “Director’s Cut: Matt and Kim’s ‘Lessons Learned.’” Pitchfork.com.

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