The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies (review)

Journal of Aesthetic Education 41 (4):113-117 (2007)
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In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:Reviewed by:The Aesthetics of Cultural StudiesPaul DuncumThe Aesthetics of Cultural Studies, edited by Michael Bérube. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005, 208 pp., $26.95 paper, $67.95 cloth.This new anthology of ten chapters and a chapter-length introduction by the editor is primarily intended to act as a corrective to the view that cultural studies is uninterested in aesthetics. Contributors argue that while some cultural studies scholars have given this impression, either abandoning the term "aesthetics" or explicitly rejecting the tradition of philosophical aesthetics, cultural studies has been, from its origins in England in the early 1960s, deeply concerned with aesthetic issues. Cultural studies is properly understood, contributors argue, as being born out of a desire to extend aesthetic considerations to a wider range of artifacts and experiences than had hitherto been allowable within the modernist philosophical tradition of aesthetics derived from Kant. Contributors deal with many debates within the field of cultural studies—unsurprisingly mostly to do with turf wars within universities—but I will focus here specifically on what they have to say about aesthetics, though I cannot do justice to the multiplicity of views developed by different authors.Since contributors are primarily from North America, where cultural studies has mainly taken root in the English departments of universities, the cultural form most commonly discussed is literature. Exceptions include David Sanjek's chapter, which focuses on popular music, and Steven Rubio's chapter, which deals playfully with phenomenological intertextuality between classical music and popular cartoons. Most of the issues addressed by contributors also apply to other traditional arts, though not, I will argue below, to many contemporary forms of popular cultural experience.Contributors are especially concerned to defend themselves against charges that, in Rorty's view, cultural studies equates to "expressions of political resentment clothed in jargon," or in George Levine's characterization of this position, as "seeing the text as a kind of enemy to be arrested," where the text is reduced to context and the truth of art is denied in favor of the truth of politics (as cited in Rita Felski's chapter). For such critics, cultural studies equates with ideology critique and represents the death of aesthetics. Not so, according to each of these authors. John Frow, for example, argues that from its inception it was not aesthetics per se that cultural studies objected to but the then normative discourse of aesthetics that was positioned above politics.Several authors are concerned to establish the credentials of cultural studies as a unique way of approaching culture and not just any running together of culture and politics. Felski complains of a "semantic drift," which sees cultural studies mischaracterized and condemned for sins that rightly belong to other fields.Complicating a search for the uniqueness of cultural studies, however, is Jonathan Sterne's contribution in what seems a significantly revisionist position. He claims that in cultural studies culture has had to carry too heavy a burden. Culture has been a conduit to politics, he argues; studying culture has been a way of studying politics by other means, and he suggests that sometimes culture can simply be enjoyed for its own sake and not subject to analysis. David Shumway, too, at times just wants to enjoy culture. In the everyday course of living this is surely right, though it is hardly at the center of the scholarly cultural studies' enterprise. As other contributors argue, cultural studies has always seen the need for striking a balance between aesthetics and [End Page 113] ideology. Sterne's unease with cultural studies for seeing aesthetics primarily in instrumental terms—a way of getting at politics—nevertheless serves as a corrective to the idea that cultural studies scholars have a hard time understanding pleasure.Most contributors acknowledge the influence of Raymond Williams—as well they might—and several cite, even at length, from the chapter "Aesthetic and Other Situations" from his 1977 book Marxism and Literature.1 Here Williams succinctly laid out the theoretical framework for many of the authors of this anthology. It is worth considering some of the key threads of Bérube's book through the prism of this chapter.Williams begins by making aesthetics problematic...



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