Awakening to cultural studies



Leonard Nimoy’s death reminded me of a moment in college. I don’t remember what year it was, but I was talking with a student who was writing a paper—or was it his senior thesis?—on Star Trek. The paper/thesis was about how the TV show’s representations of race filtered and processed various anxieties and aspirations of the Cold War, particularly ideas about civil rights in the US and decolonization abroad.

Recalling this conversation, I was reminded of one of the critical aspects of my college education: realizing that mass culture or popular culture was a thing, something to be studied, analyzed—read (now that was a concept: reading mass culture)—with the same critical eye that you would bring to a literary text or historical event.

I’m curious if other people had a similar moment in college or grad school or high school. I remember the first time this awareness hit me: I was a freshman in a class on Shakespeare. The preceptor (Princeton’s fancy word for TA), a grad student in the English department, went on a long tangent about Madonna, her artistry, what she was doing vis-a-vis our ideas about gender and sexuality. Coming from high school, I had thought of Madonna as a pop star, someone you liked or didn’t like. It never occurred to me to think of her as an artist or that there was something more to her artistry than catchy tunes and crosses. But listening to my preceptor, I realized that there was more to her, that she was actually doing something, in and to the culture, and that “pop star” was a category to be mined for meaning, not dismissed as detritus.

The other time this awareness hit me, I was a sophomore. Michael Berkowitz, a senior who would go onto become a friend in later life, wrote an article in The Progressive Review, which I was affiliated with, on the changing style and substance of black sitcoms, from Good Times and Sanford and Son to The Cosby Show. Again, the piece came to me as a revelation: the idea that pop culture had a history, and that in that history lay a whole story about how America was dealing with race and racism.

When I raised this issue on Facebook last night, Art McGee, a communications and media consultant in California, wrote:

So, how much of the fact that you’re white and were raised in an upper-middle or upper-class family the reason for your unawareness? As a working-class Black teenager, hyper-awareness was always my default reality, long before reaching any sort of higher education. Interrogating the larger meanings of popular culture always felt somewhat foregrounded in African-American culture, at least it was for me in the late 70s and 80s.

I suspect Art’s onto something. As a Jewish kid, I always marked certain cultural phenomena which most of American society simply took for granted, just assumed this was/is the way of the world: the supposed universality, and certainly the ubiquity, of Christmas, that sort of thing. For me, Christmas was a trope. But that was a once-a-year sort of thing. So I can imagine that the cultural antennae of a black teenager would be much more sharply attuned to the codes of a mass culture that was still, for all the advances of black musicians and actors, still predominantly white, to notice it as an object, as something to be decoded.

There are many intellectual awakenings that mark the transition from high school to college. Critical thinking, historical consciousness, political and ideological critique: all of these I brought with me to college, none was new. But one of the ideas I did not bring with me, one of the moves I really did learn in college, was to look at popular culture, this thing I had grown up with, this thing that was as familiar to me as my own family, as something strange, something to be studied and attended to, with the same rigor and intensity that one would devote to philosophy or history or literature.

Cultural studies has often gotten a bad rap. But at its best, it really was/is one of the things that education is supposed to be about: coming to an awareness of your world as a medium—that is, not to see your world as simple land, air, and sea, but to see it as the specific air you breath, the specific land on which you stand, the specific sea you in which you swim, to understand its ways and means, its limits and boundaries, to ask why it looks and feels and sounds this way and not another way, to imagine something beyond it.