If you’re the kind of person who is the subject of Michael Bérubé’s scathing critique of cultural studies in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, then you’ve probably read it already. To summarize via citation, Bérubé argued that the impact of cultural studies “has the carbon footprint of a unicorn,” and yet nobody within the field notices or cares. If you run in different circles, then you probably haven’t read it, and likely you either abhor cultural studies or haven’t heard of it, perhaps for precisely the reasons Bérubé describes.

I find it hard to object to the critique, and I say that as someone who could be said to do cultural studies, at least some of the time. The idea that sheltered, lumbering aghastitude amounts to political activism is pure folly at best, insulting affrontery at worst. I’m reminded of Badiou’s familiar idea that activists think a change in the situation, while “politicians do not think.” Perhaps this is the one thing that many academics and politicians have in common. Consider, for example, the following anecdote Bérubé retold on Crooked Timber, which adequately summarizes the impotent struggle that plagues many among my kindred:

…by the mid-’90s I’d gotten bored with [cultural studies]—increasingly, a lot of the work felt like it was telling the same story over and over again: “Knock, knock!” “Who’s there?” “Subversion!” “Subversion who?” “Um, just Subversion, isn’t that enough?”

There’s much more to say about all this, but for now I wanted to connect Bérubé’s critique to the occasional accusations of political ignorance we sometimes see mounted against speculative realism and object-oriented ontology. The basic argument is something like this: if human experience is deemphasized, the important political questions that should concern us will be deemphasized or ignored.

In response, those of us interested in objects have often pointed out that humans and objects in their interest can remain and flourish; nothing is taken away from humanity, but rather something is added. We are joined by the myriad other objects that surround us: pewter, lawn gnomes, panko bread crumbs, alpacas.

But another objection, perhaps a more fundamental one, might mirror Bérubé’s gripe: anthropocentrism need not even touch the realm of the ontological before it curdles feebily into muck. Instead, or in addition, it’s very possible simply to reject the idea that such pondering is automatically political in the first place. This is precisely what Levi Bryant did in a recent response to one such objection:

what is this important political work youâ??re doing? Does it consist in putting on airs about how radical you are as you complete your studies? Perhaps going on a few marches here and there? Does it involve dropping the name of Lenin and advocating revolution when cute young men or women are present?

As Levi put it in the post that elicited the debate, “I wonder whether there isn’t a way in which speculative realism was able to resonate at this time and in this moment by virtue of this creeping sense that somehow old modalities have lost their potency.”

Perhaps one way to understand the shift Bryant observes comes via Bérubé’s critique of cultural studies. While Bérubé characterizes his gripe as one about the rhetoric, framing, relevance, and reception of cultural studies, we might also describe the critique as an indictment of idealism. Cultural studies prides itself on laying bare the reality of political life by stripping away the false consciousness of ideology. But ironically, the real things of reality are often ignored, in favor of the invented things of critique. In this respect, I am somewhat skeptical of Bérubé’s solution for cultural studies, which amounts to more realpolitik and less pop-culture fandom. I welcome vaudeville and videogames as much as political economy and urban planning, so long as the former get to be more than mere tools for leftist othering.

I’ll save this for another day, but: in the future, I think we will see (and I hope I will participate in) the connection of speculative realism with the reemergence of the public intellectual, one who would acknowledge that public as one just as real as hegemony, grease traps, salad shooters, and Wal-Mart. The world outside the yellowing hallways of the ivory tower is real, and replete with reality. Why not join it?

published September 28, 2009


  1. NrG

    Hi Ian,

    Here’s Ira Livingston’s (Chair of Humanities and Media Studies, Pratt Institute) response to the article by Berube.


  2. Ian Bogost

    Thanks Nate. I read this one too, the other day. Bérubé’s comments get needlessly truculent, I guess, but I have to admit to a fair measure of head scratching when I read Livingston’s response. Glazed with sticky nonsequitur, like a fresh Krispy Kreme.

  3. anxiousmodernman

    Ian, I do hope that you’ll return to this subject.