Whither Capital IV: Sabotage or Complicity, Research Time, 04/06/2018

So Cultural Studies – the academic revolutionaries – knew they had to battle for a kinder world on the field of culture. The question now was how you’d do it.

Well, they had a long-standing channel to communicate with the public. They were researchers, writers, regularly published in respected journals. So they would research, write, and reveal the hidden vectors of oppression and routes to liberation in the most unexpected places.

You probably know where I’m going with this. I know where I’m going with this. And I don’t want to condemn the discipline, I really, sincerely don’t. But the field’s focus on the analysis of pop cultural properties isn’t exactly the most effective form of cultural change.

Now, those analyses really do have the power to change minds. They can help illuminate how subtle moral conditioning and ideas worm themselves into what we typically think are innocuous entertainments. But there are two problems with that.

Is it responsible to rest with merely describing what is wrong with your
society, when you depend on those fundamental wrongnesses to make
your diagnoses? I don't know, actually.
First and most obviously, this can’t be the only technique in the toolbox for social change. Some folks specialize, and that’s great. I work for some other channels of social change right now, and plenty of channels are active. My first critique is an institutional one if nothing else.

You know what I mean. They may have trained themselves writing for paywalled research journals. But the most effective pop cultural criticism projects since the start of the discipline have been in streaming tv and blogging.

The blogging project was explicitly defined as a magical ritual, on top of that. It would have been seriously questionable to a tenure committee.

But Slavoj Zizek’s documentaries about how to understand cinema psychologically and philosophically reached huge numbers of people. Elizabeth Sandifer’s TARDIS Eruditorum has become a leading edge in popular understanding of Doctor Who, and a gathering point for the global sci-fi trans and queer communities.

Cultural Studies as an academic discipline writes powerful critiques of exploitive institutions, institutions that have state, economic, and social components. These are complex institutions like global trade networks, the mining industry, state military colonialism to wipe out indigenous people and cultures. Institutions like universities that perpetuate the financial exploitation of students, and the class stratification of societies.

Now you see the problem, don’t you. Here’s an academic discipline based around developing multi-faceted critiques of exploitive institutions. But its home is in an increasingly exploitive institution – the post-secondary education system.

Culturally, universities foster cultural conservatism by elevating wealthy donors and families in their support networks. Universities force levels of indebtedness on more and more people to the point of macro-economic catastrophe.

Universities protect networks and organizations like nationwide fraternity houses, which foster gendered violence. Researchers who are elevated to high-status positions in universities rapidly become corrupt and hypocritical – imagine a global justice and anti-colonialism advocate who rewards young female scholars from South America with career opportunities in exchange for sex.

Wait, you don’t have to imagine that last one. It’s Thomas Pogge of Yale University.

Cultural Studies was complicit in the institutions it was critiquing, because it could only function in the network of those institutions. Now, this discipline grew from the generation of researchers who grew up in the first period of mass-level university education. For the first time, working class and minority researchers were joining the university sector.

But it was still a sector built for the wealthy, male, and mainstream culture. No matter how much you may criticize the elites, if you have to play by elite rules to do it, your critique will always be incomplete.

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