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New Directions in Popular Culture Theory

The most invigorating and lively panel I attended was the Professional Development panel chaired by Bob Batchelor on Saturday morning at 11:15.  Four of us presented to a packed house, offering ideas and explorations of the current pop culture landscape and considering how Pop Culture studies and Theory could interact in the future.  Quick summaries of my co-panelists:

  • Brian Cogan spoke first, offering ten thirty-second nuggets of wisdom and prophecy about popular culture studies and the future of theory.  He reminded us that the study of Popular Culture was the study of everything, even nonPopular culture.  Cogan reminded us that Ray Browne saw the field as a kind of meaning making, the exploration of the ideas of cultural capital.  He championed our “now”ness — the fact that our field studies texts as they emerge, and thus takes a greater risk than those who wait to study texts until they’ve entered the canon.  Finally, he mentioned two Japanese words, which I’m sure I’ll spell wrong here,otaku meaning geek, and amaru meaning mutual responsibility.
  • Sarah MacFarland-Taylor spoke next, offering a critical theoretical exploration of the relationship between religious studies and popular culture studies.  She discussed how both explore the resonances of the primitive/civilized split, how Popular Culture itself operates as a kind of religion (Ed note: Echoes of Ulmer here: Orality = Religion; Literacy = Bureaucratic Government; Electracy = Entertainment), and how the classic opposition between work and play becomes upended by popular culture.
  • Then I spoke (see below)
  • Bob Batchelor closed the initial five-minute talks with a proposal for Popular Culture Theory 2.0.  Batchelor described how Browne’s original vision saw theory as a hindrance to Popular Culture, that it allowed scholars to perpetuate the elitism of the academy, that it was undemocratic.  But, Batchelor suggests, now we’ve got a moment where we can embrace some of the theoretical strategies to explicate meaning and understand our context.  He urges us to be omnidisciplinarians, a practice that has been part of Pop Culture study as Browne always envisioned it.  We should shape our writing for a global audience.

My talk:
I’ve included my PowerPoint slides below.  I’ve noted when each slide would start.  Please note: this talk was given extemporaneously from rough notes, so the content here differs slightly from what I said on 14 April.

Welcome.  I’m Brendan Riley, an Associate Professor of English at Columbia College Chicago.  My talk today is a bit of a polemic, so I apologize in advance if you were expecting something erudite.  I’ll be talking today about how Popular Culture scholars can, and must, take the lead in helping the Humanities tell its story.
  I’m drawing my talk today from a couple premises.  The first is that Higher Education is on a bubble.   I believe Higher Education is in the same situation today that Travel Agents faced in 1995.  We’re perched on the verge of a major upheaval in the way people pursue higher education: with decreasing government funding for higher ed and rising tuition costs, the nation is beginning to shudder at the debt burden we’re putting on students.
  From below, the rising tide of online education threatens the model under which we’ve been conducting education for ever.  I hate to say it, but given today’s date, this seems apt.

My goal here today is to talk about how the Humanities can do our best to be on the lifeboats if the ship goes down.

  My second starting point is that the Humanities in general has not done a very good job of telling its own story. 

In Zachary Karabel’s What’s College For?he argues that academics have a distinctly different idea about what higher education should and does do than pretty much any constituency from students and parents to senators and employers.  And worse, when anyone outside academia tries to have a conversation engaging with this question, academics often refuse to listen.

If we don’t engage in the conversation, Karabel argues, it will be held without us.

And there’s a lot to say from our perspective.  The study of culture brings to students a critical perspective far more flexible than any career-specific training they might receive.  So why do we have trouble telling this story?

  Which brings me to my title, this slide, and my central anecdote.  A friend of mine used to tell this story:

In his first semester teaching film studies, a conventional University of Florida frat-boy approached him at the end of the first class.  With a skeptical look on his face, the young man asked,

“Is this the kind of class where you teach us that JAWS is about Communism and stuff?”

For me, this anecdote is symptomatic of two larger currents in our culture:

First, it reinforces the anti-intellectual perspective that the Humanities involves a ridiculous semiotic slight of hand with little or no value to the outside world.

Second, it highlights the skepticism these same anti-intellectuals have toward the study of popular culture instead of the canon.

   It’s in solving these last two problems that Popular Culture scholars are among the best positioned to help tell the story of the Humanities in a way that will help people understand why what we do is important.

This is where Theory comes in, for Popular Culture scholarship has long been victim to the hermeneutic trap, the tendency to produce close readings without considering the import of our work beyond the walls of academe.  In the same way, the jargon-laden writing of theoretically-minded scholars suffers from a similar fate: its exclusivity stands in the way of its transportability into the larger culture.

Hence, we scholars of the everyday have an opportunity.  By writing about the practice and experience of the everyday in compelling, theoretically robust ways that also aim for an educated general reader, we can tell the story of the work we do to the people whom we serve.

   This activity falls under the umbrella, of course, of public intellectualism.  So it’s here that I join the Bob Batchelor bandwagon; I echo his call from the Ray Browne Popular Culture conference last Spring for we scholars to step out of our cloisters, to engage in public debate, to remind people why they should value what we do.

Because if we don’t tell our story, who will?

Thank you.

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