This course introduces you to cultural studies, a diverse intellectual formation committed broadly to producing theoretically informed and politically engaged scholarship. Because cultural studies tends to shift in relationship to specific geo-historical conditions, intellectual problems, and political concerns, many who are new to the field (and even some veterans, for that matter) find it difficult to pin down. Indeed, the question “What is cultural studies?” has been posed countless times, yet rarely has it yielded satisfying or enduring answers. There’s something about cultural studies that seems to resist definitional closure, which makes the task of introducing the field somewhat daunting for all involved.
Rather than trying to settle once and for all what cultural studies is, this course embraces the field’s open-endedness by stressing its ongoing reconstitution in practice. Thus, “What does cultural studies do?” will be our organizing motif. What’s so important about this question is that it enjoins us to take stock of specific formations of cultural studies while remaining sensitive to its larger project. It also encourages us to widen our frame of reference to encompass the signifying systems, material coordinates, and historical conjunctures out of which particular cultural studies practices have emerged.
This is a course not only about cultural studies (its theories, methods, key figures, debates, etc.), therefore, but also about the field’s conditions of possibility. It proceeds primarily through a close reading and detailed discussion of primary works by scholars who’ve been at the forefront of inventing—and reinventing—cultural studies practice, with an eye towards situating their writings in determinate contexts.
Although this class is ostensibly about cultural studies, it is, in the end, really about the urgency of developing rigorous intellectual work—work that will help us respond more effectively to the numerous political challenges (neoliberalism, neo-conservatism, and globalization, to name only a few) of our time. Otherwise, to tell you the truth, we shouldn’t much care about cultural studies, what it is, and what it does or doesn’t do.