Sunday 28th May 2017,
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In Defense of “Celebratory” Scholarship

One of the many academic tussles is the distinction within cultural studies between “critical” work and, well, everything else. It’s a distinction I have some problems with, so I’ll propose an alternative. Instead of deriding non-critical scholarship as “celebratory” we should value it as “positive.” Non-academics: proceed at your own risk!

Here’s the long-version of my complaint.

As I read up on the field of communication studies and think through how I fit in — for my exams — I’ve come across a great book from Robert Babe, which attempts to fuse the study of cultural studies and political economy. It’s a useful book for graduate students looking for an historical analysis of the emergence of cultural studies in media, even though there’s no shortage of essays and books on that. In mapping out the field of cultural studies, Babe points to a broad fissure in the discipline — one that’s starting to close, but still exists — between “cultural materialism” (structural considerations of concrete cultural phenomena) and “poststructuralism” (a focus on language, radical thinking, that, in his view, disregards or downplays concrete material conditions). Poststructuralism, in his opinion, leaves out considerations of structural inequality, the role of governments and corporations in the shaping of culture, etc. It’s a commonly held belief. Cultural materialism — and this is the argument of the book — is open to those ideas while still taking culture seriously (TV, books, whatever).

That’s the gist of the book. He contrasts these two cultural studies — cultural materialism and poststructuralism — with another, less desirable side. His graph of the field is instructive (I reproduce it only adding “Katz” because no scholar is identified under uses and gratifications in the text):

There’s at least a dozen ways of mapping out the field of cultural studies. This is probably as good as any. However, I do have a small bone to pick.

First, an explanation. “Critical” here is concerned with critiquing dominant/common assumptions, institutions, powers-that-be, etc. “Materialist” is grounded/empirical (mostly) research, while “idealist” concerns ideas and ideologies (theory). (The “administrative” tag comes from the earlier days of the field, with a part of media research intended to aid or support media institutions and not criticize the growing fusion of government and industries — media conglomeration, centralization, etc. — and disregard larger social and political critique.)

My problem is the word “celebratory.” “Celebratory” is code in critical cultural studies for those whose research doesn’t challenge the mainstream or, broadly, power. Today, it’s associated the work of some scholars who choose primarily to focus on how ordinary people relate to media and culture: uses and gratifications research are concerned with how ideas spread and disperse, while active reader theories focus on the meanings and ideas people get from texts: how people interpret media. Babe isn’t coming up with the term on his own. In fact, it’s the common word for such research, but it’s almost always meant negatively. I’ve never once heard it used to call some research valuable — ever.

At worst, “celebratory” researchers are accused of assuming a) media are benign and affirming, b) people are autonomous and free (that they are not affected by their inability to change society, or that they can change society outside of structures), c) that media content is generally good or apolitical and, the highest insult, d) of being “industry hacks,” in that their research is often appealing and useful to those who make culture (big corporations).

What’s my problem? It’s a small one. I simply don’t like the word “celebratory.”

I don’t agree with the caricature of people who don’t do “critical” research, a caricature which is often condescending and counterproductive. The major research called “celebratory” is more often not so. It is what I would call positive. It is positive in that it considers what is potentially meaningful or valuable about present conditions, highlights them, and suggests ways those conditions can be instructive or should be adopted.

An example. Take the work of Yochai Benkler, who is a legal scholar but whose book, The Wealth of Networks, has been adopted and criticized by culture/media scholars. Part of Benkler’s robust thesis is that digital economy creates different forms of value (often nonmarket value) which are meaningful: consider most of Wikipedia, amateur vlogs, or personal blogs. Benkler’s project in part to incorporate such activity into our theories of economics, to give them credit and point out their potential to shape society. A “critical” (political economic) take on Benkler’s ideas could be: the only value is market value (exchange, use) and most digital activity has little value and is unlikely to change the structure of most social and cultural relations. I could name numerous other examples of so-called “celebratory” research; Benkler might not be the best one. Still, a crude critique of the “celebratory” aspect would go like this: Benkler’s work only supports the current, unequal system of media production by celebrating activity that has little cultural value and only serves to keep the current system in place (marginalizing “nonmarket” practices while larger forces run everything and occasionally co-opt the margins). Consumers still have no cultural power in a market economy. (I’m making this up as I go along. I actually love Benkler’s book).

But are these books that celebratory? Yes and no. Yes, Benkler’s book celebrates some things. But that’s hardly the point. To me, books like Benkler’s are attempts to not tear down (critique) but build up.

In my opinion, scholarship needs both. We can’t simply say what’s wrong with the present (that’s important!), we also need to point out what in the present is worth saving, what we like, what is positive — “positive” in that it posits a valuable future or alternative. Surely not everything deserves critique or, even if everything does, surely there exists in the culture that which is as valuable as problematic. Why must it be either/or?

The term “celebratory” doesn’t recognize this contribution. It dismisses it as euphoria, childish. Think of a “celebratory” image (like the one at the beginning of this post). Does it strike you as academic or worthwhile? No. It’s the image of drunken people losing control, who lack their bearings, lack perspective.

But “celebratory” research is valuable. It’s a necessary component of media and cultural scholarship. It’s the other side of critical, the ying to the yang, heads to the tails. We should embrace it as an option, not dismiss it as meaningless.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

3 Comments

  1. Melvin September 15, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    You make some important points. I didn’t know a divide existed in cultural studies. It seems those who dismiss the work scholars produce in cultural studies are probably the gatekeepers, desperately trying to cling to old ideas about what academic work should be. Thanks for the reading suggestions. I’ll add some of them to the mountain of books on my desk.

  2. Aymar Jean Christian September 16, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    As usual, thanks for reading, Melvin!

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