Cult Stud Mugged: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Learn To Love a Hip English Professor

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By Kevin Mattson - January 31, 2011

BACK IN the late eighties, I was an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research, along with other punk rockers, political activists, and wannabe writers. It was a hotbed of the postmodern academic Left: my fellow students would “interrogate” texts while carefully avoiding “logocentrism,” deconstruct television shows, and write essays that “de-gendered” literary works they hadn’t read.

Like many college students, I was confused and horny. So it didn’t take long for me to notice numerous young women clutching copies of Joan Scott’s Gender and the Politics of History (her then-husband taught history at the New School). Read this book pronto , my libido told me. In short order, I learned to challenge “the accuracy of fixed binary distinctions” and was making casual conversational references to stylish French thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

Midway through my reeducation, I came across an essay in Joan Scott’s book that set out to dismantle E.P. Thompson, the historian of the “English working class.” Scott took him on by blowing up the very concept of “rights” and the language of inclusion, as used, for example, by the movement that demanded that people without property be allowed to vote. She questioned Thompson’s faith in “rational” politics and the “abstract individual, the bearer of rights.” I stumbled through Scott’s cumbersome sentences—somehow critiques of abstracted individualism never yielded decent prose. And I remember thinking to myself: aren’t rational arguments in favor of rights a good thing? And especially for anyone who claims to be on the Left, seeing that universal rights are the basis of…well, just about everything?

No , the other students in my classes told me, because such a “position” hadn’t “sufficiently problematized” (a term I heard a lot back then) the binary oppositions inherent in rights and universalism. Conversation after conversation like this ended with my head buzzing and my heart broken.

After getting a Ph.D. in American history and entering the joyous condition of chronic underemployment that it secures, I finally acquired a full-time teaching position in 2001, just a week before September 11. As we all know, a very different world soon opened up. It included not simply a war on terror carried out by a tongue-tied president, but also a conservative movement that was emboldened, by having conquered every branch of government, to search out tenured radicals and make war on the press.

I often wondered where Joan Scott was through the past decade. It turned out that she was heading up Committee A of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), an organization founded almost a hundred years ago by the liberal philosopher John Dewey to fight for the distinctly bourgeois ideal of free inquiry. Committee A focuses on “academic freedom” and tenure issues, and therefore I had to rub my eyes a bit when I came across the powerful testimony Scott gave to numerous state legislatures that were considering rules that would allow politicians to smoke out and dismiss radical professors. Her defense of “academic freedom”—including the right to control classroom content—was steadfast and thorough, and she cited a document that the AAUP had created in 1940 that elaborated on the idea. It read, in bold and clear language, “The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.”

I thought back to my New School days, dwelling on the many ironies that attended Scott’s new professional mission. Academic freedom ? Now, aren’t there a lot of binary oppositions and gendered compromises that riddle this dead-white-male, liberal value? Isn’t this an abstract universal proposition, and a meta-narrative to boot? Shouldn’t she interrogate or problematize the idea for those listening legislators?
But we were no longer in the eighties or nineties. The Right had come with guns blazing to legislate against “academic freedom,” and suddenly a left-wing academic realized that the liberal and universal values she used to criticize weren’t such bad things after all. It turned out to be far more important to defend such ideas than to interrogate them. I suddenly realized I had witnessed an intellectual mugging.
IRVING KRISTOL famously quipped in the early 1980s that a neoconservative—a member of a faction then defecting from the Democratic Party in droves—was “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” What he meant was that people like himself—intellectuals who had leaned left—were being driven to the right thanks to their experience with the New Left in the late sixties. Mugged : as in, having your ideas taken away and replaced by something else; a signal that the world no longer operates the way you expected.

Today we’re seeing another mugging occur on the intellectual landscape—a more subdued and drawn-out shifting of intellectual coordinates than anything announced by the self-advertising Kristol, but a mugging just the same. The inflated pomo world I had inhabited at the New School has popped like the dot-com bubble. Joan Scott’s retreat into universal liberal verities was an early symptom, but several years on, the lack of seriousness that had been synonymous with the nineties—the intellectual fads, the pop culture studies, the French theories—had collapsed under the weight of an economic meltdown. What once appeared to be a liberating application of high theory to essential aspects of political and cultural experience now seems silly. Tenured radicals have awakened out of their comfortable nineties slumber to reckon with full-scale catastrophe.

One figure encapsulates the shift from the heyday of cultural studies in the eighties and nineties more fully than any other: NYU American studies professor Andrew Ross. Here was the studliest cult stud of them all. Ross was the celebrity professor who rebelled against literature in favor of popular culture, who left a tenured position at Princeton’s stodgy English department to head up NYU’s booming American studies department, a place where gay porn mattered more than Hemingway. “I am glad to be rid of English departments,” he told a reporter for New York in 1994. “I hate literature for one thing, and English departments tend to be full of people who love literature.” He edited the red-hot academic journal Social Text , wrote books published by the theory-happy publishing house Routledge, and even dressed the part of puckish culture rebel with not just one but two earrings. A New York Times reporter at the Modern Language Association (MLA) conference in 1991 remembered Ross for his “hand-painted Japanese tie,” “mango wool-and-silk Comme des Garcons blazer,” and “wedge-heeled suede lace-ups recently acquired on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village,” as much as for the paper he presented on “Mapplethorpe and 2 Live Crew”: “Tall, lean, with saturnine good looks, Ross attracts attention wherever he goes. ‘That’s him!’ comes a reverent whisper from a group of graduate students nearby. ‘That’s Andrew Ross!’”

In 1997, Ross’s status as king of the cult studs was confirmed in James Hynes’s novella Queen of the Jungle , whose central character sweats away as a literature postdoc in Iowa, hoping to clinch a position at a university in Chicago where his wife just received tenure. He writes a paper that makes a “linkage … between ‘The Metamorphosis’ and My Mother the Car .” His wife calls it “a little too Andrew Ross for me,” but that just fuels his desire to outline a new book with chapters like “The Sitcom at the End of the New Frontier: The Brady Brunch and The Wild Bunch in Contrapuntal Perspective.” So Andrew Ross.

Such gently satirical callouts were meant as homage to Ross’s wide-ranging influence. He was a wordsmith, prolific in intellectual output. His career took off in 1989 with No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture . The book rode a cresting wave of voguish populism among the university’s theory elite. Ross derided the “well-known, conspiratorial view of ‘mass culture’ as imposed upon a passive populace.” He celebrated “the ability of people to variously interpret and use what they see and hear in mass-produced culture.” He sneered at intellectual elites who suffered from “paternalism, containment, and even allergic reaction” to pop culture—including, bizarrely, those who criticized the rigging of the quiz shows during the fifties. These snobs ignored the “extraordinary success and immense popularity” the shows evinced—meaning, one supposes, that their popular mandate entitled them to continue jacking up ratings by fraud.

The larger message of No Respect now seems embarrassingly trite. It amounted to this: if you find yourself digging television, don’t sweat it. Even pornography, as the reader found out in the second to last chapter, should elicit no concerns about the mechanization of sex but instead should be seen (if not celebrated) as representing an exciting conflict between the “discourses of popular pleasure” and the “morality laid down by the appointed or self-styled intellectual protectors of the public interest.” The Rossian populist revolt might be summed up with the slogan, Run to the video store!

The cult studs of the nineties took the putative political implications of such work very, very seriously. As George Herbert Walker Bush dispatched troops to the Middle East to free oil-rich Kuwait from Saddam Hussein, cult studs mounted the barricades of protest, armed with pop guns. Here’s the ringing first line from an op-ed that Ross wrote with Constance Penley condemning the Gulf War in the New York Times : “As scholars of popular culture, we spend a good deal of our time resisting the widespread assumption that people are passive consumers of the mass media.” In other words, they took the occasion of war to assail the “myth” of the “couch potato”—a stratagem that fell considerably short of inspiring the multitudes to take to the streets chanting, “No war for oil!”

What Ross and Penley succeeded in was advancing the kind of vapid sloganeering that passed for campus radicalism in those days. “It is war that makes people stupid, not TV,” they wrote. Never mind that a lot of people were getting their information about war from TV. What really mattered was the “racist and xenophobic aggression” that drove Americans’ war-time fervor. Porn was OK, and so were rigged quiz shows, but war was not. Unfortunately, this time the people were on the other side, supporting the war by a wide margin.

As it turned out, the Gulf War didn’t last long enough to test audience-reception theories and their relationship to military mobilization. And by 1992, everything had changed. The Clinton years were about to start. The tech bonanza was just around the corner, the Internet was blossoming, the hills were alive with the sound of globalization. As the economy boomed, cultural studies did too.

In 1992, the movement produced its foundational document, a doorstop of a book titled Cultural Studies that bulged with essays and transcripts of conversations held at a conference at the University of Illinois. Ross’s essay in the volume, titled “New Age Technoculture,” explored how “modern science’s founding sacraments”—note the equation of science and religious faith—were “rapidly disintegrating.” This erosion was on full, deliquescent display, Ross argued, in the wacky New Age cults that had grown out of the sixties counterculture. Ross wrote that educated elites saw New Age stuff as mere dross, the “lowest of the low.” But not an arch-populist like Ross: he saw “political lessons” in the New Age movement, which, to give just a smattering of examples, included such empowering diversions as “aromatherapy,” “Bach Flower Therapy,” “chakra therapy,” and “quantum healing.”