Listening to Criticism

I was at a panel all day yesterday — stuffy little room, 9-5 pm. Sometimes, in the course of discussing difficult issues — like how projects in which we’re deeply invested reflect and reproduce privileges that as hard as we try remain embedded in our practices — we wind up taking out broader frustrations on each other. Part of what I saw yesterday were people who were frustrated with institutions in somewhat diametrically opposed fashions: one because after all these years feminists remain excluded from communication studies’ canons, the other because she was frustrated with how the canon functions in communication studies to exclude forms of knowledge produced outside its parameters.

There was an intriguing conversation to be had in all this, but as is typical when emotions are running high, it didn’t happen. I’ve never liked canons and their implicit and explicit conferrals of value on particular kinds of texts. On the other hand, when you supervise PhDs, you can’t help but be implicated in producing officious forms of knowledge — like the dreaded “survey of the field” question. I’m constantly frustrated by the homogeneity of those lists — in the US context, it means reading the work of a bunch of misogynist philanderers who often cribbed work from lesser known wives and colleagues. But including white American women — Hortense Powdermaker, Marie Jahoda, etc. — doesn’t really get at the the fundamental problem, either, which is how we’re institutionally encouraged to reproduce very specific forms of knowledge.

Maybe we’ll have that conversation next time.


2 responses to “Listening to Criticism

  1. This is an interesting conundrum, many of us face it in all areas of Cultural Studies. The question of canons and methods is of special interest to me as I am charged with teaching undergraduate majors in Cultural Studies, which creates many of the same pressures around explicit canon formation: if we have to explain the field to them, and have it understood as a historical, cultural phenomenon (rather than a free floating ideology) it is difficult not to at least speak of a canon. Granted, depending on how the professor her/his self, the contours of this content and narrative will be tweaked somewhat. I also sort of feel it my duty to explain (and take responsibility for) my intellectual and personal development as a scholar. In addition (if not because of) my being a particularly privileged position (white, and male – e.g. ) my present understanding is shaped by a specific range of texts and contexts an I was led to simply because by a certain set of instructors, attending with a certain cohort, at a certain time and a certain place.

    In short, my understanding of the canon is part of my argument for why the field looks or works in a certain way. My (our) presenting or teaching that canon is more than just defensible: to be reflexive about my intellectual development, I have to own up to the canon that shaped it. And I hope to continue to reflect on that canon.

    So instead of arguing against canons, it makes a lot more sense for each of us argue for a certain one, reflecting on our development, sharing and comparing with others, and discovering where a conflict exists. For instance, I confess I haven’t taught extensively the information about the personal lives (or personalities) of the leading (male) theorists of the field – I usually mention it, but I don’t know of a piece that outlines some of these and provides a critique along the lines you suggest (e.g. their mysogenism). What are the best, most accessible articles – I would be glad to have them to present to my undergrad theories course.

    It is worth noting that my arguing the need to defend your canon actually reflects an important feature of the GMU Cultural Studies program: while advisors recommend you have one that is closely affiliated with an existing disciplinary formation (Women’s studies, gender, Race, Communications, Media Studies, etc.), they are both basically the research fields you have to will into existence around your chosen object of study. There is a set number of texts (something like 125 or 250) which you have to demonstrate competence on) but you have to argue for why the texts you are choosing mutually constitute the field in which you are demonstrating mastery. In other words, arguing for the constitution of a field is central to the process.

    I realize this is done in other programs as well, but my understanding of most other comp. exams or even field statements (e.g. in some Anthropology) is that they give you the list. At GMU, your advisors will tell you if there are obviously some things you should have on your list, but for the most part, the field statement is also an intellectual exercise. For many years this is something that has frustrated students and faculty alike in the program because it makes the field statement itself a very burdensome hurdle in the process. But I think it is one of the most rigorous features of the program, at least as it functioned at the time I was there. It forces you to look closely at the cultural field around your object and figure out the best way to examine it. I have one of my field statements up on my page and I imagine someday honing it into more of a book – i.e. one with an argument about a canon, an argument that others can take exception to, criticize me for, destroy or supplement as they please.

    If there were such an exchange around canons, this would be an excellent space to continue some of the conversations that were begun long ago – when the empire struck back and women took issue – conversations that were central to Cultural Studies formation as a field. But I also recognize the problem you allude to, which is that the problem of producing a feminist communication studies is that the field is already so thoroughly constituted with a certain view of what it is. But maybe there is still room to exclaim what a feminist or alternative vision of it would look like. In any case that seems like a worthy project for all who are engaged in it. Is this sort of what you were talking about or am I going off on a tangent? And am sincerely sorry in advance for all the ways I’ve just exposed my own embeddedness and reproduction of privilege. It is a hard habit to shake.

    I also note that

  2. I don’t know a way out of the problem of canon formation, except — as you observe so eloquently — to situate the process itself, to be transparent about why choices were made, and to be prepared to acknowledge and discuss omissions. I think that it’s all about exposing “our own embeddedness and reproduction of privilege,” as you nicely put it above, as well as the particularities of our own (disciplinary) training. It’s not easy or pretty and it does mean being willing to be called out in a process of constant self-reflexion.

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