Jeffrey Williams 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 
out?  

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 
knowledge.

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 
that desire.  

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?

PS:  Eight.

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 
novel?²  

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 . . . 

JW:  Why?

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 
what happened.

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.



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