Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Good-bye Grad School, part 3

.... and furthermore....

OK, so back to the men in suits who were deciding what we were supposed to read (because they were mostly men, though not all). Although there might have been some discussion and disagreement about individual authors, for the most part, it seemed self-evident, obvious, that the books that they chose were the Right Ones. They weren't being prejudiced, it's just that the authors they chose were clearly "better" than the ones they ignored.


Really, of course, they weren't being impartial at all.  They were making those choices based on a certain set of assumptions particular to that era: well-educated people write books of greater significance; the wider sphere of activity of men is inherently more interesting than the smaller sphere of activity allowed to women; white people are genetically endowed with a greater capacity for intellectual thought; heterosexuals are normal, homosexuals are perverted; and on and on.  In other words, they were wrong. They were horribly prejudiced, even as they were positive they weren't.

Feminism/gender studies and race/ethnicity studies have forced us to examine the criteria by which we choose which works are "worth studying," the assumptions that lie beneath the choices that used to seem so obvious. In fact, since any set of criteria that you devise to choose certain literary works over others will necessarily reflect your own tastes and your own prejudices, there is a school of thought that we should not make those distinctions anymore.  The study of literature is (in some places) being abandoned for "Cultural Studies," where anything can be studied as an example of the culture which produced it. Lyrics to rap songs, ad copy in a mail-order catalog, horror movies, badly written poetry from 13-year-olds, short stories by MFA graduates-- all of it is equally valuable in understanding culture.

Which is, of course, true. All those things are cultural artifacts, and any of them will work if you want to study the culture that produced them. As a separate field of study, I think cultural studies are fascinating. In fact, at one point I was considering doing a Cultural Studies-type thesis on romance novels, because it would have been fun. Fashion as Indicator of Character in Romance Novels of the 1990s (does fashion indicate anything? isn't it always a mask?), or Sexuality as Cultural Construct in Erotic Romances of the Early Twenty-First Century (hello, Foucault). But other than an undergrad course on science fiction, as far as I know genre fiction was not being studied in my department, and it seemed like too much work to blaze a trail (more on that another time).

But three years later, I don't agree that cultural studies should replace literary studies. No matter how broad-minded you are about what you're going to study, you can't study everything. So you still have to make choices, and those choices are still going to be informed by your prejudices and your motives. In fact it seems to me that the more insistent you are that you're not being influenced by cultural prejudice, the more likely it is that you are. All those men in suits and ties who insisted that only Henry James and Joyce and Eliot were worth reading saw those choices as obvious, not the result of prejudices that are clear to us now.

So if you're using ad copy in mail-order catalogs to study female body image, you're still making any number of assumptions that reflect your cultural bias, starting with an assumption about the worth of a field of study called "cultural studies." Even if you come up with some pseudo-neutral criteria for choosing your research material (the ten most widely circulated swimsuit catalogs from July 2009), you're still dealing with your own assumption that swimsuit shopping is a good indicator of female body image, that female body image is something to be studied, that it's different than male body image (which are all assumptions I happen to agree with, but we're from the same culture, so that doesn't prove much). And who knows whatever other cultural assumptions we are making in establishing this topic as an area of study.

So switching to cultural studies doesn't really solve the problem of using biased criteria to choose what to study. It's less offensive criteria, to be sure--and the importance of that can't be over-stated--but we are still biased. We are still of our times. There's no escaping it.

Tomorrow you get a break, we're doing Words on Wednesday. then more on Thursday! onward!

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