JW: Ironically, you can almost justify cultural studies by a return to the basics—history and such—although it¹s a bit different direction I would imagine than somebody like William Bennett would prefer. PS: Cultural studies seems all too willing to slide off into the study—by which most people seem to mean either the interpretation or the celebration, or both—of popular cultural forms. So it becomes basically some kind of popular culture study, and I don¹t think most of us at CMU ever thought of it like that. JW: I have colleagues who show movies and tell me they do cultural studies . . . PS: One way of addressing that would be to say precisely that it¹s not the object that counts; rather, it ought to be the methodologies and assumptions that are paramount. And that includes the assumption I was referring to earlier—that there can be no autonomy for the particular object you choose. But what those course descriptions or those course titles also indicate is that at CMU we always thought that cultural studies should be intimately involved with history, that it had historical work to do as well as contemporary . . . JW: So you could do eighteenth century as well as . . . PS: Of course. Cultural studies can be done in some way with any kind of object or any given time, so you could do good cultural studies about eighteenth century France as well as you could do good cultural studies about ancient Rome. JW: Or about ancient Greece. The difference between William Bennett would be that he wants us to dust those monuments rather than think about how they were produced and the circuits of power . . . PS: Yeah, precisely. Someone like William Bennett would object to the very questions that cultural studies would ask about all those monuments. JW: You know, why are men and women represented a certain way on the basis of sex . . . PS: For us, gender issues are really crucial and have been throughout the whole program. Most of our courses have some kind of feminist component. At least, I¹ve learned from feminism. JW: Which is clear from your work, in Discerning the Subject and in the Men in Feminism project. PS: One can always wish that one had learned more. Anyway, after those core classes, people took a variety of different kinds of courses, but they were all slightly untraditional in the sense that even if they were called ³Nineteenth Century²—even if they were periodized, that is— they were all types of literary and cultural studies. The assumption was that the literary text should not be privileged. That¹s not to say that it disappears, but it won¹t be the only thing. The only other thing to say about the courses is that they all included theory. They were theoretically informed, and indeed we did actually teach theory courses to undergraduates. We had courses like Feminist Theory, which was quite popular, or we¹d have survey courses of marxist criticism and theory. JW: It¹s interesting to me to hear you talk about theory. It seems to me that there¹s a certain move on the left, that there¹s a condemnation of postmodernism or poststructuralism, whereas what you do is imbricated in theory or it learns from the lessons of poststructuralism. PS: Yeah, I don¹t think much was ruled out—except that we didn¹t seem to have any deconstructionists in the program! I mean, there were various concepts, various schools of interests among the faculty, so they got represented in the curriculum obviously, but the cohesion was around the broad rubrics of the core courses. One of the delights and frustrations of being in that program for so long—eight years—is that so many decisions about the curriculum were up for grabs. That¹s not to say it was a volatile curriculum, but it was a changeable curriculum, and so many decisions made about it used to get made only after three or four hours of wrangling among the faculty, and in conversations which you could only call intellectual. But the kind of efforts that the university has exerted, especially over the last three or four years, has been to move us in one direction or another and sometimes both, in terms of those pulls on us that I mentioned. At promotion and tenure time, we¹re held to the standards of the social sciences in terms of proof and evidence and documentation, that sort of thing, even though part of our job is, I think, to critique those things, to interrogate those kinds of evaluation and argumentation. By and large most of the people around us have chronically made little effort to understand or be open-minded about cultural studies— they¹ve preferred to say that we¹re incoherent and that we don¹t make the effort to make ourselves understood, even though some of our faculty have contributed a lot towards the understanding of cultural studies in the broader arena. And so that makes life very difficult pragmatically because we are literally a minority in the school. The other pull is to turn us back into a literary department which would cover the English literary periods. And, again, we¹ve obviously got our own kind of critique of that built into the program. So, for instance, one of the things that students would be introduced to is the idea that there¹s something fishy about the fact that you learn English literature. Now, why? Obviously, there¹s other kinds of literature, but fundamentally the tone and standard for literature departments is set as ³English.² So what does that mean? Those are the kinds of questions we¹d ask straight away on the undergraduate level, getting people to try to rethink assumptions about the system we¹re supposed to be in. So it¹s a bit awkward when the administration comes in and says, Well, you¹ve got to start teaching more literature. Which isn¹t to deny that you can teach the literary against the grain, in some sort of radical way, but that wasn¹t what most of us were interested in doing in the first place, and some of our faculty aren¹t even trained to teach literature. We never thought of ourselves as taking literature as the privileged artifact. JW: I wanted to ask about about how you might set up a cultural studies course, to give some tips, as you do in the essay in the Berlin collection. PS: Actually, that particular course was developed because of one of the negative things which has happened to the department. The three core courses have been disbanded, and you know that really was like cutting a leg off the program. And it was very deliberate, of course. One of the attempts to reinstall what we were trying to do there was to offer a course called What Is Cultural Studies?, which would be not just for English majors but for other majors as well. JW: In that essay, you mention that you use Barthes¹ Mythologies, which I use in composition courses and think is a wonderful text to use, particularly since it shows how to read signs, whether it be the face of an actress, whether it be steak and fries or wine, furniture . . . PS: It¹s still necessary to take the notion of systems of meaning and discursivity very seriously, and Mythologies was there for me because I was wanting to offer some sense of how you might (even if Barthes failed in some ways) go out and try to describe a system of meaning which wasn¹t literature. It needn¹t have been Mythologies; it could have been other things. JW: It gives some handy examples. PS: I agree. Also, one way in which we might be considered old fashioned as a group is that the notion of ideology appeared a lot in what we did, and that¹s a big part of Mythologies. JW: Actually, Barthes is interesting in ³Toys,² where he talks about how toys teach boys to act one way and girls to act another way. I mean, it¹s essentially an ideological analysis. So, what would be a quick sketch of a course that you might think of now? PS: Well, actually, that one. One would always want to kind of sift through the actual syllabus each time. But I do find it useful to have some Frankfurt School in almost any course that I do. There¹s always some Marx. It all depends, but increasingly over the last few years I¹ve been teaching a lot of the British cultural studies people. JW: Like Hall, Hoggart . . . PS: Well, I was going to amend that to say the progenitors, so I teach Hoggart, Thompson, and Williams quite a lot. That¹s always kind of useful; it always produces some sense that what we¹re talking about is a complex whole. When we¹re looking at culture, we¹re looking at a complex whole which doesn¹t open itself immediately to the divided forms of knowledge that other disciplines represent. In some ways this may not be ambitious enough for anybody who might read this, but if I can produce the sense in a student that those disciplinary knowledges do not cover this object and give them some sense that it¹s precisely the totality, the contradictions, the overdeterminations that are important, then I think I¹ve done my job. JW: Tell me about some of the other courses you teach. PS: One of the courses that I¹m finding myself increasingly drawn towards (for obvious reasons!)—I¹ve taught it a couple or three times now—is about post-war England. And I mean England, not Britain. It¹s an interrogation of the construction of Englishness, English identity and so on, and I focus on the immediate post-war moment, really the early fifties. I try to talk about the necessary relationships between that big chunk of history, which is the war, and the reorganization of the world, at all kinds of levels—economic, political, civic— immediately after the war, and the beginning of a certain kind of American cold war imperialism and how that shows itself in a British context. I find Dick Hebdige¹s book, Hiding in the Light, quite useful for that, even though I don¹t quite agree with all of it, but he brings the objects out and helps give a sense of, again, the interconnectedness and their meaning within that particular frame. JW: Give me an example of how you¹d deal with one of the objects. PS: Well, I mean some of the things that Hebdige talks about; he talks about waves of consumer items which come into the British context as a result of the massive over- capacity of American industry after the war. So, everything from washing machines to new cars, and what they mean. You can go at it in all kinds of different ways. You can say, okay, If you have this particular historical formation, what does that mean in terms of economics? What was the particular face of a country like Britain with a depleted economy after the Second World War? What did America do to it? Or you could go at it from the other end and say, Here¹s this object, like a washing machine or a television, so what and how does this signify? Part of the effort is to get people to think about totalities and interconnections, but also actually going and looking into the library. An old kind of pedagogical dream, to get them to look around there, at things which are readily available—newspapers, magazines, books of the period, as well as the objects . . . JW: So it¹s a kind of deep historical immersion? PS: I hope so. It¹s hard to talk about courses as such, I mean just off the cuff. But one of the reasons I like that particular course is because the whole idea of ³Englishness² was put to the test in the public discourse at the time, under the influence of what people called the Americanization of Britain at the time. So in certain conventional and traditional ways Englishness is juxtaposed with the Americanization of the culture. But it was clear to everyone that Americanization was embodied in all kinds of different commodities, objects, and cultural practices. It¹s not just a question of American movies, which is an obvious importation. It¹s also things like what people wear, what kind of cars they drive, and so on. So it¹s a particularly good moment to use to show how national identity is constructed through material practices, commodities, and culture. JW: One other question about teaching. One thing that I noticed in that particular essay is that the final projects were much different from the final projects that most of us usually give. When I get back tomorrow, I have to grade a set of 18 papers from a course on modernism. What kind of things might you elicit? PS: Students can make certain kinds of logs and journals that are analytical and descriptive, that might include pictures from magazines, articles from newspapers and stuff like that, which they can use to produce a description of the cultural milieu—as long as there¹s some kind of analysis of those things beyond the description of them. I often let people make their own videos, or they¹ll do various kinds of—what shall we call them—analytical artworks. For instance, recently a student from the art studios got a collage of images from different kinds of magazines with a commentary, a verbal commentary, but framed in such a way that it looks sort of like a Barbara Kruger. That kind of thing can happen. I¹m not worried about how people display their learning, I¹m just concerned that it be there. I¹m almost indifferent to the form in which it comes. JW: The last topic I want to talk about is your own intellectual formation. It seems to me that part of the point of being an oppositional intellectual is trying to figure out how you were formed as a subject in the first place. PS: Well, there are two main things that I would think of as provisional origins of where I am. One is having a particular kind of quite highly disciplined, British post-war education, I¹d say fairly traditional and quite rigorous, and certainly very wide ranging . . . JW: Where was this? PS: A grammar school in a town called Winchester. The kind of education that was available then is probably not available any longer in many kinds of schools—mostly because of the assault on the public education system that Mrs Thatcher carried out in her anti-statist zeal. But I happened to be there at the right moment. And that rigor was carried through as an undergraduate at Cambridge and a Ph.D. student at Kent. I finished my dissertation in the first years of the Thatcher era, and I do think in that sense, I am a representative of a peculiar generation, or a generation which won¹t get repeated. JW: An English diaspora? PS: No, I didn¹t mean that, even though there probably has been that sort of ³diaspora² (though my impression is that it¹s people slightly older than me who make up the biggest part of it). No, I just meant that the whole structure of education in Britain changed radically with Margaret Thatcher, and I think it¹s no longer available in the form that I got it. That was the first component. The second thing I ³got² was politics. JW: At Cambridge or as a teenager? PS: As a teenager. JW: Was your first interest in literature? PS: At first. Politics was something separate, in a way, through school. I was a member of a particular political organization for some years when I was a teenager, and the mixture of that and a certain traditional English education was important. I¹m floundering because I don¹t know how to narrativize this exactly. I was interested in languages—in French and Latin—and that¹s what I started off doing at Cambridge. At Cambridge I came across all kinds of new ideas which could be characterized as structuralist or poststructuralist and that started the big struggle of my intellectual life, I suppose, for the next ten years. After that, it was how to square the kinds of structuralist and poststructuralist stuff that I was getting with my self-taught marxism, as it were, and my politics. And in a real sense that issue has been the crucial one for me; it was the germ of my intellectual development. And that¹s not uncommon probably, but now what¹s most important to me is the rigor and the knowledge of marxism—which, the older I get, the more valuable I find in relation to other kind of theoretical things. JW: I take your point. For me, it¹s strange teaching literature because my project now is trying to figure out why I was taken with this delusion called literature in the first place. Anyway, how did the cultural studies come in? At Kent? PS: The live intellectual issue while I was a graduate student was a version of what I just said. That¹s to say it was the standoff between the Birmingham Cultural Studies Centre and the Screen group. That produced the central texts for me. It wasn¹t so much the Birmingham school of the time that became important, but their progenitors. It was Raymond Williams, E. P. Thompson, and associated people like Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, that kind of British historical work. And by the same token, on the other side, it wasn¹t so much in the end Derrida or Foucault who became important, but the people they were all in a sense working out of, basically the tradition of Euro-philosophy— Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx and Freud. So in some ways the progenitors to that struggle became mine as well. And maybe one way in which I¹ve managed to resolve the kinds of issues of structuralist/poststructuralist theory in relation to marxism of any kind is by recognizing that the progenitors in some way have as much to do with the politics of intellection, the politics of everyday struggle, as their offspring do. JW: One more question. What are you working on now, what project interests you? And, as a corollary, are there any people working now or particular texts that have struck you or that you feel go in particularly fruitful directions? PS: In terms of the first bit, I¹m now working on a book called Bearing North, which is in a sense about the New World Order. It¹s about what I¹m calling the unification of capital in the North. I¹m focusing upon Britain, Germany, and the U.S. I¹m having to educate myself in political economy in order to think more about the relations and determinations between economic structures and cultural formations in those countries. JW: A departure from the Eastwood book, certainly. PS: It¹s closer to what I was trying to do in ³Visiting the Banana Republic.² The big issue for me is the place and role and usefulness of political economy, within the frames of cultural studies. That¹s my current concern. In terms of the second question, I¹m finding myself increasingly drawn to the kind of work that¹s going on in Rethinking Marxism. I don¹t agree with it all by any means, but it seems to me there¹s an effort there to do exactly what that sobriquet says, rethink marxism. And at its best it can be very productive. I also think there¹s a lot of good stuff going on in what you might call the dispersal, at this point, of what used to be feminism—its dispersal into various kinds of feminism, and into lesbigay studies. At the same time, there¹s a lot of posturing going on there too. In an abiding kind of way, I owe tons to the work of Jameson and Spivak. My view of Jameson¹s work used to be very sceptical, but it¹s been becoming a lot more positive than it used to be (though one has to regret the idiosyncratic ways he pays attention to the work of other and younger colleagues). Spivak¹s work is always provocative and stimulating— wonderful stuff. But perhaps the most important arena for looking at new work for me is the Marxist Literary Group. Maybe it¹s just because I help run the organization, but I¹m continually amazed by how much high quality and interesting work is going on there. But I¹ve got to run. JW: Okay, thanks.
Giroux, Henry, David Shumway, Paul Smith, and James Sosnoski. ³The Need for Cultural Studies.² In ³After Theory.² Ed. Paul Smith. Dalhousie Review 64.2 (1984): 472-86.
Jardine, Alice, and Paul Smith, eds. Men in Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1987.
Smith, Paul. Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
–––. ³A Course in ‘Cultural Studies.¹² Cultural Studies in the English Classroom. Ed. James A. Berlin and Michael J. Vivion. Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook, 1992. 169-81.
–––. Discerning the Subject. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.
–––. ³Visiting the Banana Republic.² Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism. Ed. Andrew Ross. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988. 128-48.