Questioning Cultural Studies:
An Interview with Paul Smith
[This interview with Paul Smith took place on 20 June 1994
at the MLG Institute for Culture and Society at Trinity
College, Hartford, CT, and was conducted by Jeffrey Williams,
editor of minnesota review. Special thanks to Jan Forehand
for transcribing and preparing the manuscript.]
JW: In 1984, you co-wrote an essay called ³The Need for
Cultural Studies.² In a way, it was a manifesto for cultural
studies and how cultural studies could reform literature
departments or, more exactly, de-form disciplines. So, after
ten years, what¹s your take on the current formation of
cultural studies? Has the charge in that essay been borne
PS: Well, the short answer is no. But the longer answer
involves talking about what that article actually was, when
it appeared, and in what context. We actually wrote it in
1983, at the beginning of the importation of cultural studies
into the American academy. Cultural studies was still pretty
much an empty term for a lot of people, and for us it
seemed like an opportunity to politicize whatever that
importation was going to be. We wrote it for the first issue
of Cultural Critique, but, in my understanding, it was not
published there because the editors decided that it was too
radical, at least for their immediate practical concerns.
That¹s to say they expected to get various kinds of grants, so
they wouldn¹t publish it.
JW: Really? It seems almost tame in the current moment.
PS: Well, yeah. But that¹s what I¹m saying. In that context,
it was an attempt to politicize something which had no
shape or form in the American academy. And lo and behold,
the first thing that happened to it, its purview was called too
political. So that set a certain tone, I think. But the article
itself was concerned largely with the question of cultural
studies as an opportunity for what we were calling ³resisting
intellectuals²—intellectuals taken in the broadest sense of
the term, we were very Gramscian in that moment—resisting
in terms of not just the institution, but particular
disciplinary productions of knowledge. For me, one thematic
form cultural studies has taken in the last ten years has
been the critique of particular disciplinary productions of
knowledge and therefore of the institutions which produce
those knowledges, in such a way that some of the divisions
between disciplines, between knowledge and politics,
between professors and students, between the university
and what people call the public sphere, could get
reconvened or rethought. And to me, that¹s still the main
advantage in principle.
JW: Before I said it was tame. Actually, it¹s probably more
a question of its being a manifesto, and manifestoes don¹t
quite sound the same after the fact . . .
PS: Certainly. But it also seems tame because since then
there¹s been a lot more rhetoric or noise about those very
issues, and I think that the stakes increase perpetually, that
cultural studies has the potential to transform both
knowledge itself or the forms of knowledge production, and
also the institutions in which they¹re produced. Cultural
studies could do something to the disciplines, could reform,
de-form, or in some ways alter our sense of disciplinary
JW: On the other hand, there¹s a certain way in which
cultural studies has been absorbed into the institution.
PS: Not necessarily. I think that the noise has been large,
but real absorption hasn¹t actually happened. If you were
going to look into the future of the cultural studies
movement, one of the big tasks would still be to think about
how we can do the kind of critique of knowledge production
such that it will be in our own terms. I¹ve always thought of
cultural studies as perhaps a way of making some moves
against instrumental rationality in the university and in
other institutions. I still like to think that¹s what it could do.
JW: It¹s being absorbed or assimilated in various programs
around the country, like the new one at Stony Brook. It¹s
being slotted into the humanities there, but it¹s just another
component, like one has women¹s studies programs, one has
. . .
PS: That¹s perhaps how it now appears, but I don¹t think
that¹s what we were hoping in our ³manifesto.² But if that¹s
what it¹s going to be—another mailbox in the university—
then I think its task can still be to struggle against
positivism, empiricism, the instrumental rationality of all
disciplines, the structures of knowledge which are taken for
granted in most of the academic disciplines, especially the
social sciences, which seem to me at this juncture to be the
enemy in very real ways.
JW: Why is that? Your Carnegie Mellon experience?
PS: Well, it¹s certainly influenced by my Carnegie Mellon
experience, where even in the English Department there¹s
that kind of social science ethos. But I think it¹s not just that.
I mean, it seems to me that the assumptions which are,
again, for shorthand called positivism and empiricism, the
assumptions of most of the social scientists in this country,
are dangerous because of the way in which they have
credibility in and access to policy-making in public,
governmental, and administrative circles. And such a lot of
the money which is spent on R & D in this country goes
straight to the social sciences for particular kinds of projects
which I think we ought to be still critiquing—critiquing not
just because of the politics of their involvement with
government agencies or corporations, but critiquing them
for the assumptions about knowledge, their epistemological
status, if you like. That¹s something that cultural studies
could still do, even if it were just another mailbox. But that
wasn¹t entirely what one started out hoping for it to do.
JW: What do you think of the current strand of cultural
studies, really the dominant line of cultural studies in this
country, as represented by the leviathan volume, edited by
Grossberg et al., from the famous conference at Illinois?
And there have been a whole bunch of cultural studies
readers spawned from that. I¹ve also noticed in the MLA
Job List, there are now even some cultural studies jobs.
PS: Well, far fewer than our graduate students might hope
for! I¹m not sure there¹s anything like a coherent image of
cultural studies being presented anywhere. I don¹t
especially want to critique the volume Cultural Studies, but
I don¹t believe that the lack of agreed methodology, the lack
of conventions across whatever cultural studies might be, is
at all a good thing. I don¹t think, in the kind of institutional
settings that we¹re in, that we can afford not to say, ³These
are our methods and assumptions. These are the ways in
which we conduct ourselves.²
JW: Would it then become as a discipline, though, or . . .
PS: Certainly, but I thought we were starting from the
proposition that ³if we are going to be a mailbox,² which I
would be hard pressed to argue isn¹t the case. That¹s really
where cultural studies is, I think—even though it doesn¹t
appear in all the universities all over the place and even
though it¹s very scattered. But there¹s also another sense in
which it¹s been institutionalized; it¹s become a huge boon for
academic and Routledge-like publishers, a hot material for
purveyors of particular kinds of commodities, and I think
that that¹s not inarguably good for cultural studies at this
juncture because that kind of market competition
encourages—I hate to sound old-fashioned and even
Frankfurt Schoolesque—a lack of rigor. And I think for
cultural studies to survive institutionally, even as a mailbox,
some kind of rigor is always going to be needed. It¹s
certainly going to be called for by the other disciplines with
whom we would be in struggle.
JW: So some sort of department . . .
PS: Or some sort of ³center,² perhaps. If we¹re talking about
cultural studies and its survival in a university context in
this country, every form of knowledge production needs to
be able to point to its assumptions and its conventions, its
methodologies, its procedures, and I don¹t think cultural
studies does that at this juncture.
JW: Right. And for you, the unified image you would see for
a program would obviously be a left or marxist one?
PS: Not obviously. This is a ³discipline²—we have to put that
in quotation marks at least—which is yet to come. It really
hasn¹t happened yet, at least not in the American context.
And I think that the situation of marxism vis-à-vis cultural
studies has actually come a long way, which is to say that I
think the various practitioners of cultural studies can learn a
lot from marxism. But I don¹t think that marxism has such a
lot to learn from cultural studies in the variegated mode
that it¹s now in, given that marxism has, however you cut it,
produced an agenda, which cultural studies may or may not
have yet. If I were given the facilities to set up my ideal
cultural studies program at this point, it would be necessary
to have people who could, if not agree precisely on
particular methodologies and assumptions, at least recognize
the need for that. And perhaps the only place in the
humanities where you see people arguing those things
through is within marxism. So the likelihood is that if I
were given those resources, then a kind of marxist cultural
studies program would be one I would try to build up, but
of course I don¹t get that opportunity. Those who do get that
sort of opportunity . . .
JW: I see what you mean. To press you further, how is
cultural studies informed by marxism?
PS: What I¹m saying is that the particular attention that
marxism has paid to all realms of the cultural, the social, the
political, the economic still in some ways constitutes a more
advanced project than the vague thing called cultural
studies in the U.S. I think that the current state of cultural
studies is actually bewilderingly diffuse and suffers because
of that diffusion. Whereas I¹d say that marxism is not
diffuse, but varied, variegated. Maybe that¹s not quite the
way to say it, but marxism has grown from something which
can be looked at and can help you remind yourself what
your agenda is, what you want it to do. I¹m not sure cultural
studies has ever had that kind of desire or the possibility of
JW: How would you succinctly define what you take as
cultural studies? I know that¹s a nearly impossible question,
but . . .
PS: Well, I¹m going to fall into a self-serving proposition
because it is very close to the best kind of marxism, I
suppose, where the kind of interrelations between various
elements and registers of the social totality (if I can risk the
word) are considered as a dialectically interconnecting
whole. This is one of the reasons I still like to think about
the Frankfurt School. There¹s a sense there that, if you¹re
looking at culture, whether you want to define it as
television or high art, a sense that culture is not in any sense
autonomous. Rather, it¹s part of a totality. It¹s a part of an
interconnected set of things, which are contradictory,
problematical, perhaps almost impossible to analyze. But
that nonetheless seems to me the task. I¹m not saying
succinctly what would be an ideal form of cultural studies,
but I am saying that there are various places that you could
look for clues and hints about what it might look like, and
one of them would still be, to me, the Frankfurt School. And
I suppose various other kinds of disciplines approach that
way of working—like certain kinds of historiography, some
kinds of anthropology—thinking about the social totality
with all of its contradictions. But the important thing to me
is the impossibility of thinking about any kind of cultural
form or any kind of cultural artifact as autonomous. And for
me that necessarily brings in all kinds of issues about civic
life, about the economy, about production, and so on.
JW: I see what you mean. There isn¹t any such thing as
those good, old great books of and in themselves.
PS: Precisely. Of course not, and so much the better for
that. But neither is there a television program.
JW: So how do you feel in a literature department? I mean,
do you feel out of place or an imposter?
PS: Well, I¹m not really in a literature department—though I
am leaving Carnegie Mellon to go to George Mason
University where I will be in a more recognizable English
department. But the history of the Carnegie Mellon English
department is complex. Currently, B.A. students there don¹t
get a degree in English, even though it¹s an English
department. They get a degree . . .
JW: In cultural studies?
PS: In ³Literary and Cultural Studies,² it¹s called. Or they
can go elsewhere in the department, and get a degree in
professional writing or rhetoric or those kinds of things. It¹s
a complicated set up.
JW: There are only a few other cultural studies programs
aside from CMU—I think there¹s one at Brown in cultural
studies now, and Syracuse has textual studies . . .
PS: As far as I know, Carnegie Mellon¹s the only place where
there¹s actually a B.A. degree in cultural studies or literary
and cultural studies. I may be wrong about that, but I think
it¹s true. And so in that sense, I haven¹t felt like an imposter
because the program was set up precisely to do what it has
been trying to do. The problems there, again, have mostly
been institutional problems.
JW: How long has the program been in place?
PS: Well, let¹s see, ten years.
JW: How long have you been there?
JW: I know that you¹re fairly instrumental in the program,
personified by some of the students I¹ve talked to as the
program . . .
PS: Thanks. But the basic setup of the program was done
before I worked there. But it¹s fallen into various kinds of
difficulty. Perhaps it can be characterized in two ways.
There¹s a kind of double pull. Certainly, there¹s a contextual
pull, which is that the whole of Carnegie Mellon is this quite
forbidding—and purblind—nest of instrumental rationality,
technocratic and empiricist in character; and the cultural
studies program was really the only place where anything
that most people would recognize as the humanities was
played out. But then there¹s another pull which is also
internal, but from the older humanities tradition, which says
that cultural studies is all well and good, but what about the
great books? You know: ³How can you give people a degree
in literary and cultural studies when they¹ve never read a
JW: Still, for the jobs they go to, your students might well
have to teach a series of them.
PS: No, I¹m talking about the undergraduate level. The
graduate program¹s another issue altogether. So there are
those two pulls towards some kind of conformity, either
towards the social sciences image of knowledge or
knowledge production, and/or towards a more traditional
humanistic discipline. So it¹s been a very fraught situation,
and one which, at this juncture, has become untenable, I
think. That¹s to say, I think that the cultural studies
program as such will be made to disappear fairly soon. It¹s
already become very frail. Or it will be altered into
something we¹d not recognize as cultural studies (the
current Dean has the bizarre idea that anyone who looks at
cultural phenomena in any way at all is doing cultural
studies). But that¹s my best guess for it. One of the reasons
that I¹m really sad about it is that the undergraduate
program had been in certain ways very successful.
JW: Did you produce a lot of students?
PS: I can¹t tell you the exact figures, but it varied each year.
And also there were a lot of double majors within the
department, and people would take things like literary
cultural studies and rhetoric or literary cultural studies and
creative writing. In fact, there were relatively few pure
literary and cultural studies people. Maybe half a dozen will
attend a year, but it¹s a small school, so that¹s not altogether
a bad number.
JW: How does the program there work?
PS: Well, I¹m saying it doesn¹t anymore.
JW: I¹ll put it two ways. How was the program set up that
you think showed a possibility for working? Or how would
you set it up? I mean, what did you actually do?
PS: Well, again, I prefer to talk about the undergraduate
level . . .
PS: Well, because of the uniqueness of that program. If
allowed to flourish, it would have been a radical departure
in the humanities. It had its moments, but that¹s finally not
JW: It¹s more possible on the undergraduate level, because
the graduate level in a certain way reduplicates, or . . .
PS: You¹re already so much more engaged in the process of
professional reproduction at the graduate level. It¹s very
difficult to persuade an administrator that there might be
some other reasons for going into a Ph.D. program than
getting a job in that field, teaching in that field. But as far as
the undergraduate program is concerned . . .
JW: To say how it works would be useful, I think.
PS: Okay. Initially, there were three core classes for all
majors in the department, so even if you were not an LCS
major, you would take these three courses. And they
constituted, I think, a radically new kind of core for an
English department. One was called Discursive Practices, one
was called Discourse and Historical Change, and one was
called Reading Twentieth Century Culture, and every person
who took a B.A. from the English department had to take
those. Discursive Practices was fundamentally an
introduction to semiotics. Discourse and Historical Change
was what it sounds like; it was designed to provide a
historical perspective which, as we all continue to bemoan,
American students lack. And Reading Twentieth Century
Culture was supposed to do that as well, to give some
historical sense of what constitutes the twentieth century,
but also to allow for the introduction of other objects of
study—ones that, unfortunately, some people think of as
constituting cultural studies per se: basically television and
film, advertising, and so on.