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Why Cultural Studies Matters
David  Shumway format: audio
length: 0:17:54
Date Added: 04/24/1998


As I argued at the MLA in 1997, the power of literature within the cultural field has declined over the course of the twentieth century. At the turn of the twentieth century literature commanded immense social power. Such power was multifaceted, including literature's entertainment value, its supposed ability to convey knowledge of several different kinds, the feeling of national identity that a literary tradition was said to embody, its aesthetic qualities and the class-identified taste that recognizing such entails, and the economic value that printed goods had in the consumer market place. At this point, literature was integral, not autonomous. Bourdieu's "loser wins" theory would predict that as literature became less connected economically and socially, it would become richer as cultural capital. There is some evidence that literature's increasing autonomy in twentieth-century America did for a time have this effect. One might see the 1950s as the high watermark of literature's symbolic capital. The intellectuals of the 1930s, those associated with The Fugitive and those associated with Partisan Review, may be the first real generation of American intellectuals, i.e., of cultural interpreters whose power derived from being positioned outside of the dominant institutions of cultural power. These intellectuals championed literature in precisely the terms Bourdieu would recognize, literature as autonomous from politics and class, from economics and audience. They championed literally obscure writing which most people could not read, or at least not without the intellectuals' help. By the 1950s they began cashing in on the symbolic capital they had accrued. Literature was widely revered. Lionel Trilling's book notes reached hundreds of thousands of book club members. Millions of college students learned how to read literary works, all of which were now held to require New Critical explication. But what Bourdieu's theory can't account for is that this economy cannot be infinitely reproduced. The value of literature cannot be sustained by its symbolic capital alone. Perhaps it could if a consistent hierarchy of authority and taste existed to complement the more or less consistent class hierarchy, then literary symbolic capital might always be a means to advance in that hierarchy. But in present day America, cultural authority is weak. Sacred culture no longer seems so sacred, perhaps the result of too widespread dissemination. Moreover, the vast expansion of college education has turned the U. S. into a nation that has less need for the authority of cultural experts. I'm here suggesting that we professors of literature have perhaps helped to put ourselves out of business. If we want to stay in business, I think we need to be less autonomous, less devoted to preserving or transmitting consecrated works. We need to speak in our writing to the larger public about the whole range representations by which they make sense of the world. In other words, the upshot of the shift in the cultural field is the precisely the opposite of what Bourdieu's logic would suggest. Instead of insisting on the autonomy of the literary, we need to treat it as one medium among many. The most useful response to the decline of literature is to recognize that culture has expanded, and that it requires the kind of analysis previously reserved for the literary. An historically informed cultural studies is then the appropriate academic response to the new cultural field.

About the Author

David Shumway is a professor of Literary and Cultural Theory in the English Department at Carnegie Mellon University.

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