September 7, 2006

Adventures in postmodernist typos

So after reading Michel Bérubé's blog entry yesterday, wherein he discusses "residual humanism at work in Marxism [Raymond] Williams-style," and why he likes it, among other things, something in it reminded me of his July 25, 2005, entry, wherein he had discussed the latest Harry Potter book and cultural studies, writing at the end,

If indeed cultural studies is partly responsible for making it respectable to read and discuss work like Harry Potter, and I do believe it is, then surely someone like Janice Radway deserves a cut of the action. And maybe people who point out that people like Radway deserve a cut of the action could put in for a cut of a cut of the action? Just asking. We cultural studies types have to take our mass-cultural triumphs where we can, you know.

In comments, I had written (comment 18):

Very restrained of you not to mention Michel De Certeau along with Radway (or, for SF-nal folks, Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers), or you'd have to figure out how the heck HMS Pumpkin Pie is related to the Potter universe (not that I agree with those folks, you understand).

His response (comment 22):

And Sherman, I have to admit I never really loved the whole de Certeau moment in cultural studies. It produced rafts of assembly-line essays in which the good guys had tactics and the bad guys had strategies, and there was much invoking of the "everyday." What made (and makes) Reading the Romance so fascinating, I think, is Radway's juxtaposition of her own training as a narrative theorist (influenced by Proppian structuralism) with the readings of the fans. Cultural studies took a wrong turn a bit later, I think, but the question of how to do an ethnography without simply ceding interpretive authority to the ethnos is still with us. I will, however, save this larger point for a future Theory Tuesday.

Well, he hadn't yet, but yesterday, Bérubé's riffing on Williams's riffing on Gramsci's riffing on hegemony led to sentences like

The argument that The People line up with the radical left "naturally" and are diverted from their true interests only by a furious elite propaganda barrage is not only bad politics; it's bad theory, the kind that some leftists fall back on to explain to themselves why their followers are so few.

There's a serious point here about the difference between hegemony and ideological structure and the work that goes into the maintenance and evolution of the deeper structures of thought in a society. This is at the intersection of history and culture studies, and Bérubé is touching on the problems with assuming intentionality and with ignoring it, with determinism and with a decontextualized celebration of agency. In critical studies of education, this has wandered back and forth over the landscapes of functionalism, reproduction, resistance, and so forth... lots of fallow ground at this point, more than 30 years after the beginning of the interpretive education-studies wars. But do I treat this seriously?  Nah...

Nice to see an acknowledgment of Foucault's weakness as an historian from a literary guy. Thanks. And "power produces resistance" is going to be my mantra when I exercise for the next week. (Or is that one "resistance produces power"?) Incidentally, I'm still left on the hook after your promise July 25 last year (see comment 22) to discuss "the question of how to do an ethnography without simply ceding interpretive authority to the ethnos is still with us." Or was that a promise to cut de Certeau to ribbons? Ech, he's not worth it.

Bérubé's response?

Which brings me to Sherman, comment 27: why, thanks ever so much for reminding me of certain ambitious promises I made last summer. I'll deliver one of these days! In the meantime, if it's de Certeau you want, repeat after me: strategies bad, tactics good. Strategies bad, tactics good. And there's a devastating treatment of this kind of thinking in Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's (very entertaining) Nation of Rebels, for those of you who are interested.

Heath and Potter argue that the notion of a counterculture is a myth, that "rebellion" feeds into the marketplace. This market-culture analysis is very close to the arguments of the old education-resistance writers such as Paul Willis (he of Learning to Labor). It looks at first glance like an academic version of "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," where those people who rebel against "the system" in education (or culture) are feeding the system by their own choice to rebel. But that's an unsubtle look. It ignores the tremendous work that goes on by various people to frame the world around us and the context of that work. It's why (and how) the reproduction writers of the early 1970s argued that the practices of everyday life (a phrase I'm choosing deliberately to set up the end of this post) had dual purposes, both socializing individuals and also setting up a larger ideological structure (hegemony?) of meritocracy. Much of that argument was relatively crude, and I think they got much of it wrong (life is more complex than the deterministic assumptions of Bowles, Gintis, and others from that era), but there are different layers at work in the practices of schools and shopping malls.

De Certeau's work fits into that discussion in its celebration of the rebellion. That's where the strategies-v.-tactics comments above come in. Historians have a similar high-wire act they play among the grounds of focusing on the structures that make life difficult, recognizing the agency of individuals under difficult circumstances, and romanticizing survival in oppression. The whole historiography on North American slavery is replete with such arguments.

To check my sense of this, I did a simple search on de Certeau and ran across a set of online notes on Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life (translation, University of California Press, 1984), on the site of Dave Harris. And I came across a wonderful typo, one that captures the sense and problems of overweening celebrations, a post-Freudian slip that says it better than I ever could.

Tactics "often involve victories of the week over the strong."

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Posted in Random comments on September 7, 2006 12:21 PM |