At the end of my courses, I provide a “last lecture” to summarize the course and end on a positive note. This semester, it is the last time I am teaching COMM 2040, Critical-Cultural Communication Theory, for Clemson University, as the course will be removed from the curriculum this summer. I taught it 7 times in the three years I have been here.
**This was delivered to a 2000-level undergraduate course. Yes, I know there are simplicities and shortcuts. No, don’t point them out to me. I may annotate this with citations and hyperlinks over the summer.
Stories We Tell (or, Paths on the Way Towards the Possible)
At the end of each of my classes, I’ve developed a tradition of delivering what I’ve taken to calling “The Last Lecture”—a way of summing up, and putting a bow on, the course material and all its complexities.
The title of this lecture is: “Stories We Tell (or, Paths on the Way Towards the Possible)”
It’s a bit different this semester because, as I’ve alluded to, this is the last time this course is being offered. It will be removed from our curriculum this summer.
I’ve taught this class every semester since I started here, including the summers. I totally redesigned it when I took it over, so this is a bit of a sad parting.
It’s the last lecture of the semester, yes, but also the last last lecture of COMM 2040.
I’d like to do three things in this lecture:
- Reaffirm what the class has been about,
- Discuss the current attacks on critical theory in this country, and
- Give you some things to carry with you in the semesters and the years ahead.
Story 1: Stories We’ve Told
On the very first line of the course syllabus, Gilles Deleuze—a friend and contemporary of Foucault, who dealt in complicated experiential philosophy—is quoted. He says: “A theory is exactly like a box of tools…it must be useful.”
As I told you at the beginning of class, critical work is not about judgement. It is, as we have discovered about change.
We have ended the class, well, with me, with the contention that debates about culture are increasingly returning to one of its formative definitions: agriculture, the tilling of the land and the arrangement of crops and animals. As Bailey Troutman and I define this, “an agri-cultural approach emphasizes how culture is sustained, contested, and potentially changed through articulations between environmental, economic, and political formations.” Land, infrastructure, humans, and their interrelationships offer us one way to grasp some of the messiness afoot in charting what’s going on.
I used to tell my students, at the end of this class, that cultures are always changing, and the things which appear to be settled are far looser than we’d like to imagine.
But COVID-19 has exposed how unsettled everything really is. The last year so has been characterized by total upending of our daily lives, an effort to contain a virus that has killed approximately 567 million Americans—more people in about a year than any of the wars our country has been part of except for the Civil War. And at 620,000 combat deaths in the Civil War, we’re getting frighteningly close to that number.
It is in these moments, Stuart Hall would argue, where the ground seems to be shaking under our feet, that the work of Cultural Studies and critical theory can be most productive.
Here, we might build meaningful understandings about communication and culture through using theory as part of analysis.
Here, we might sense how culture links up to the movements and velocities of the world, and how those movements and speeds push and pull on this thing we call culture.
The rhetorical scholar Kenneth Burke famously called poetry “equipment for living”—a pithy way of describing how poems are helpful for giving us ways to reflect on the world and consider the world. I’d like to do Burke one better and suggest, perhaps at risk of embarrassing myself, that critical theory is also its own equipment for living.
But to what end?
This course has told several stories, stories that I believe constitute some of the foundational stories of critical communication scholarship and Cultural Studies.
Stories that have pulsated through the academy, through culture, through politics, through the myriad constitutions of our world for the better part of two centuries.
First, this course gave you an abbreviated genealogy of critical theory. We placed its origins with Karl Marx and the critique of capitalist production, assessing the conditions under which Marx produced his theories and why they mattered so much to intellectuals and critical scholars.
We examined the concerns about mass communication, community, democracy, and propaganda in the early twentieth century, and the fears that they would reshape our ability to engage meaningfully with each other.
We traveled to the Frankfurt School, where we met characters like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, who were struggling to redefine Marx in their own time period, who were colored by the growing atrocities around them and struggling to see how they could develop a framework to think through fascism, to use their writing to help people understand something about the world.
We fled to Italy, where Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned in his cell by a fascist regime intent on suppressing his beliefs, developed the theory of hegemony to describe the magnificent paradox of his situation: that his beliefs would never be crushed or eliminated. That that particular form of fascistic power would never truly win.
We spent some time looking at the preoccupation with culture as a concept through our original departure: Raymond Williams. Williams’s sympathy to the working class, to culture as a way of life, has guided our analysis for these months.
We mustn’t forget that Williams’s piece, so cheery as it seems with its long story about a bus ride, is really a very angry plea to take seriously the lives of others. There is no such thing as masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses.
A growing preoccupation with our daily lives, with the reality that we make together, and which communication helps to make alongside us, was important to British Cultural Studies, which we took time to look at through the work of Stuart Hall as well as Williams.
As you’ll remember, these folks were trying to combine lots of different disciplines—sociology, anthropology, literary studies—to create an analytical, grounded approach to studying culture that nevertheless used theory to try and explain larger trends.
We traveled to Toronto, where Harold Innis and later Marshall McLuhan would offer a radical definition of media as, in John Durham Peters’ interpretation of them, “crafters of existence,” those things which hold us together, where television has similar existential qualities as roads. They are mediators, connectors, both durable and ephemeral in how they structure our world.
We saw how this also established itself in America through James Carey and his commitment to rituals and cultures.
Cultural Studies has not only been a phenomenon of Britain and the United States; far from it. It has built strong footholds in Australia, Hong Kong, and South Africa, among other locations. Cultural Studies is a wayward spirit, an approach that demands a radical commitment to contextualization and connection, to the mobilization of theory in the spirit of understanding the articulations that make up our world.
Another story through all of these interlocutors and thinkers and researchers has been one of structure. How do we conceptualize our world as a structure—as an intersecting set of relationships? How do we understand the reliance between, say, the government and the economy, between Hollywood and news outlets, between education and literacy?
We have basically been making an argument, since week three, that Marx’s view on the structure was, to put it lightly, limited. Marx did not, by the end of his life, believe in the capacity of change in any way beyond the total overthrowing of the system. Remove the Base and install a new Base. That became, in his mind, the only way.
I’ve always been skeptical of this conclusion, one that seems in so many ways to be different from the writings of Marx’s earlier life, the ones on materialism and capital we spent time learning about together.
Cultural Studies and critical communication work, when it’s at its best, I think, reject rigidly structural thinking for what the theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari call rhizomatic thinking, a way of conceptualizing relationships that is more indebted to multiplicity, process, and complexity that allows us to think about the many dimensions, contradictions, and meanings of culture in a particular historical conjuncture.
The recent focus on infrastructure in this area, as Bailey and I take on in our piece, may point to one way to reclaim Marx’s early emphasis on historical materialism. That is to say: the materiality of data centers and aquifers provide new ways to assess how people make sense of culture, how people practice it, how economics and technologies are part of forces which alter our ways of life, and how—in the case of our study—communication outlets like local newspapers become ways to glimpse at how this contested terrain is established in particular areas and moments.
In doing this work, we might understand the crises of our time.
As you have seen, a critical disposition entails analysis and concern with understanding why problems arise over a longer period of time—For example, it entails asking, what are the forces driving the spread of misinformation, and what are the forces that cause lies to be seen as truth?
According to Stuart Hall, crises arise when “forces and articulations…come together or ‘con-join’ in the same moment and political space.” It entails asking about the condensation of forces, the settlements, the taken for granted elements of our particular and specific moment of time.
Part of my love of Cultural Studies has to do with the strange blend of theory from which critical-cultural work draws, and the essayistic blend of empirical reportage and theory-driven analysis that is its standard. And, indeed, this is why I’ve tried to explain at least a little bit of the history and context that gave rise to this theory, while we simultaneously tried to assess whether or not it remained useful—or timely, as the phrase may be—for us in 2021.
So this has been one story of the class: Theory as a history, as emerging within and responding to a particular set of conditions. Theory—at least, critical-cultural communication theory—is then very timely, as much as it may be able to traverse an array of temporalities.
This is a story that is ultimately about how theory is a political project. The people we read in this class developed theory out of very real problems that they saw in their worlds. Adorno and Horkheimer’s version of Hollywood was about Hitler. McLuhan’s version of television was about the Vietnam War. Foucault’s power/knowledge was about the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Marx’s understanding of capital was about working conditions in the 1840s.
Another way to say this is that all of these writers wrote and taught and acted with urgency because they all believed in the capacity to change the world.
And here in 2021, we are all needing to believe the world can get better.
So that’s one story the class has told.
And this story is deeply personal to me.
I need to put some cards on the table.
We began with Raymond Williams. Williams, as I mentioned, was one of the founding editors of the magazine New Left Review. Stuart Hall was also a founding editor before he went to head the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham.
I need to fold in here a scholar named Larry Grossberg, who went to Birmingham and studied under Stuart Hall in the 1970s, where Hall trained him as a graduate student in Cultural Studies work, focusing on things like context and conjuncture
From there, Larry went to the University of Illinois to earn his PhD. There, James Carey was his advisor. After he finished his PhD, Larry was hired to the faculty at Illinois, and in 1983 he brought Stuart Hall to America for a series of lectures on Cultural Studies.
So Larry becomes a force who connects Hall and Carey, Birmingham and the Midwest, and has been a major force in developing Cultural Studies in the U.S.
In the mid 1990s, UNC hired Larry away from Illinois to help develop an interdisciplinary program in Cultural Studies, and that’s where he still is—though I believe he’s on the verge of retiring.
One of Larry’s first advisors after he arrived at UNC was Ted Striphas. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Ted was one of the first authors we read: He co-wrote the article on Netflix’s recommendation systems.
After receiving his PhD from UNC, Ted went to Indiana University.
That’s where I met him. Ted was my doctoral advisor: He directed and mentored my research for five years. As part of that work, he helped teach me this history.
Blake Hallinan—who co-authored the Netflix piece with Ted—was also one of his mentees. She and I met at Indiana University. We just last month published an enormous special issue of Cultural Studies focused on infrastructural politics.
This class is, in other words, a bit of a story of an academic family tree. This story of Cultural Studies is also a story of humans coming together to think and learn from each other, and pass that knowledge forward in collaboration, in the classroom, and through practical work in the world.
You are also part of this story now. I believe we all have an obligation to continue the best of this work, to try and continue the work Williams, Hall, Carey, Grossberg, and others have worked to build and share with their students.
Welcome to our family.
Story 2: Stories in Revolt
One area of critical theory we did not discuss this semester is critical race theory, which has become a lightning rod of sorts in the last two or so years.
Critical race theory uses many of the theories we discussed in this class to examine how racial identities and relationships are couched within historical and material power relations, using this analysis to point out oppression and marginalization, and to advocate for policies focused on equity and social justice.
It’s been around for a long time, but it went very mainstream last year during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer, where scholars and activists were using platforms like Twitter to try and teach about critical race theory and explain their particular policies.
The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which used such scholars and historians to offer a viewpoint of the U.S. as founded on and inextricably tied to the arrival of enslaved persons in the year 1619, similarly “mainstreamed” a lot of these ideas, spurring intense debate and, in many conservative outlets, condemnation.
Indeed, last Fall, then-President Trump called critical race theory “un-American.”
Influential think-tank The Heritage Foundation described critical theory around the same time as “an unremitting attack on all of America’s norms and traditions.”
A Cornell Law professor created a website that tracks where the “radical ideology” of critical theory and critical race theory are taught in universities around the country
The National Review calls critical theory “a dangerous and divisive ideology”
The Federalist, earlier this month, labeled it, “The Left’s QAnon”: “not education but indoctrination.”
Earlier this year, Florida governor Ron DeSantis introduced proposals that would “expressly exclude” the examination of topics related to critical theory and the subset of critical race theory in all public schools in the state.
Bills that would forbid the teaching of critical race theory in particular—and critical theory by extension—are being or have been considered in Arkansas, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia, at the very least.
I could go on, but suffice to say: critical theory has reemerged as the target of ire for some parts of the political right. We critical theorists, such as myself, apparently exist to “brainwash” you, to “suppress” you, to bring you into a “cult.”
So, apparently, I have been teaching you some of the most dangerous ideas in the world over the last four months. As far as critical race theory goes, we might remember our day reading and examining Policing the Crisis, and how Hall and his co-authors were able to argue that policing institutions were operating in systemically racist ways that were trying to suppress waves of black immigrants in the 1970s.
It makes me sad, if not sick, to hear the work I do described as anti-American, or un-American, or worthy of attack and derision. The removal of this course from our curriculum is an enormous loss for me. I have loved working to make this literature accessible to students at Clemson, to try and show them how we analyze power, identity, social relationships, and so on to understand what we might call “the bigger picture.”
I have never thought that my job is to tell you what to think. How foolish a pursuit that would be, to believe I can control the minds of such strong-willed humans!
Rather, I want to offer you a way of considering how to think. Critical theory and Cultural Studies, as I discussed already, are built around exploring systemic forces and arrangements.
We have described this throughout our class as a series tensions:
- Who has power, and how do theye exercise that power?
- How is communication a part of power relations, expressed not only interpersonally but through things like television, journalism, algorithms, platforms?
- As we grapple with producing a more democratic and just world, what are the real limitations of this project, and how are those limitations baked into systems or practices that are quite hard to undo or remake?
We grapple with these tensions as we try and make do and make things better
But we need to hold things together in tension if we’re going to get anywhere. We need to be looking at the complex, multiple points of view and histories and motives that go into producing something. As Bailey and I point out in the piece you read for today, Google’s relationship to South Carolina is many things at once; it is not reducible to any of those things. All of those things made the relationship between the data center and the aquifer so complicated.
So when I hear someone describe this work as un-American, my heart genuinely breaks.
Let us think again about this core idea of the tension. America is a country of tensions:
- We were founded under the principles of freedom, democracy, giving people the capacity for the pursuit of happiness in a rejection of being a subservient colony
- At the same time, we had enslaved persons build the White House and the US Capitol, and over the course of the first two centuries in North America we actively participated in the suppression and genocide of Native persons.
- To point out this contradiction is, I think, not an unpatriotic thing to do.
- We might do well to turn to the Preamble of the Constitution, which asks us to form a more perfect Union through establishing Justice, insuring domestic Tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general Welfare, and securing the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.
- These lines form a project of the United States—to form a more perfect union
- Nations, like cultures, are far from stable things. They are in flux, they change, they transform, and always there are tensions
- Consider, for instance, the oft-cited measure that we have what is considered to be the second-best education system globally, but many of our benchmarks test in the 20s or even 30s of the rankings.
- Consider how much food we produce, yet people still go hungry
- Consider how much wealth we have in this country, yet people still are in poverty
- Consider how much value we place on life and liberty, yet people still are shot dead all too often
It is not anti-American to point this out. It is patently American: to suggest we must do better to realize our project, to point out its flaws, to build something that might work for as many people as possible.
Critical theory—and this includes critical race theory—is at its best when it is a project of making better. Of advocating for transformations and trying to teach people in a way that empowers them to be more democratic, more open to others, more focused on undoing harm.
I will miss teaching this material week in and week out to our undergraduates. I will miss encouraging them to make connections, to ask hard questions about our everyday lives.
If nothing else, I sincerely hope you walk away from this class not believing the venom spewed about this work via many politicians and journalists. I will continue fighting for good, meaningful critical theory in our communities here, and continue positioning it as an important tool kit.
Which brings me to:
Story 3: Stories still to tell
The final story is about theory-as-possibility.
You might think, for instance, about the ways our class has brushed against political conversations, especially in our last two meetings, and my insistence that there is much that is political about culture—and the other way around.
We saw that again in the final piece for today, on culture and infrastructure, where Bailey and I contend that various political forces shape how we make sense of our cultures and our moments.
Again, when I say “political,” I do not mean only the contestations between Democrats and Republicans over the shaping of laws, but political in the sense of how, traditionally, citizens relate to the city—or, the state, or the government, broadly considered.
We may say that today, this thing called “the political” has to do with articulations of power and populations, how people come to negotiate power within lived experiences and ways of life that inform and shape how they practice their cultures.
I’ve not just used political examples because it’s an election season and they are convenient, but also because critical work believes there is something political about culture.
And this is where my own story comes in, I guess, as a way to talk about this second story.
I was first confronted—the right word choice, I think—with Michel Foucault over a decade ago. I was a freshman in college, and ambitiously took a higher-level class that was packed to its gills with complicated theory.
And I hated it. I saw all of this as truly nonsense.
What changed for me with theory is probably as simple as this: recognizing that it’s one mode of problem-solving.
Most theory, when it’s good at least, is trying to give us ways to understand the myriad problems, crises, tensions, and predicaments that make up our culture.
Good theory helps us tell better stories.
Stories about power.
About the shape of the world.
About why we do what we do, and why things work the way they do.
About—and here’s another phrase from Stuart Hall—our conditions of possibility.
Those things that we call, broadly, the possible.
The possible asks us to think about what we can do, what we might do, and what we will do.
There is no single explanation for the world.
The world is a mess of contradictions.
Good theory recognizes that, and it revels in the contradictions, rather than tries to smooth them over.
I found theory because I needed theory to understand culture. I needed to understand the vibrant complexities of our many ways of life
I teach theory because I want to help you understand these things, as well.
If Deleuze is right that theory is exactly like a tool, we should probably, I guess, say exactly what that tool is supposed to do.
I quote Foucault: “[Theory] is a struggle against power, a struggle aimed at revealing and undermining power where it is most invisible and insidious. It is not to ‘awaken consciousness’ that we struggle…but to sap power, to take power.”
Another way to say that: theory is, in part, about imagining a different world, with a different power structure, a more humane and ethical way of living, and hypothesizing ways to get there.
We can only really get to the possible once we understand fully what, to borrow from the Birmingham School, is going on now. We cannot, as Raymond Williams put it, leap to the future. We have to do the hard work of understanding the present.
In the event that I’m losing you here, let me clarify:
I believe the discipline and work of Communication has a responsibility to architect a democratic, empathetic, bonded, inclusive public sphere.
Communication is one of the most primal things we have to give to one another.
Communication is not, and has never been, simply about the sending and receiving of messages through various channels.
That definition has never paid full service to the deeply existential work of Communication, and how it participates in the governing, maintenance, and sense-making practices of human affairs, how it contributes to our ways of life.
We have lived, and in many ways are still living through crisis.
Our world turned sideways, and then upside down in 2020.
What COVID-19 has done is to expose how everything is interrelated in staggering ways: a public health crisis becomes a jobs crisis becomes a supply crisis and an infrastructure crisis and more and more. We were all exposed to these compounding crises.
As someone who is now fully vaccinated, I do feel we are coming to the other side of this, but we know full there will be ramifications from this past year spilling out into years to come.
As Cultural Studies teaches us, crises don’t just end. They linger and transform, and we will not know what to make of all of what’s happened this year for a long time.
We cannot expect to know what to make of all this yet
We will need to rebuild our communities, and to work on rearchitecting and changing the world to help one another
The ways to fix these—and other—crises in the places where we live and work will likely differ for each of us. Indeed, while we all share many commitments, we have a lot of different perspectives, beliefs, and ideologies.
It is, as I’ve already said, not my job to litigate the beliefs you hold. It is my job, I believe, to outfit you with tools that ask you to use your morality for the betterment of our culture, to turn communication into practices and processes that do good in this world.
We might do well to remember Raymond Williams: We over-invest in what is technically good—what are best practices—at the expense of investing in what is morally good—what are practices of being better.
The throughlines of this class have focused around recurring themes of daily life, power, structure, and change.
The utility of theory provides a framework for approaching the world that I do honestly believe enhances your ability to understand and respond to problems across a wide array of communication-based jobs and opportunities.
Our material can, I believe, illuminate important things about the world.
It can help you use communication to make something happen.
To reinvigorate that which is possible.
Our theory can inform and guide your praxis.
It can help steer you towards doing good.
Coda: Stories for community
Okay. As Steve Jobs used to say: One more thing.
Let us return to the relationship between “communication” and “community.”
They both share a Latin root: communis, “common, public, general.”
If we still struggle to understand the task of Communication in this tumultuous world, it might be to work on finding the common ground between our communities.
This is something like what the scholar Jurgen Habermas calls the public sphere—the space where individuals are able to come together and voice their concerns collectively—and it’s one that our course has been building towards.
It is worth remembering, again, that culture comes to us in part from the word agri-culture, and its associations of tending to the soil, of growing, harvesting, and caring—above all, caring—for the physical world and its products.
As Ted Striphas has put it, this perhaps now antiquated understanding of culture “demanded—and still demands—patience, persistence, studiousness, and craft, and above all attention to the mundane details of one’s conditions of existence.” We might then suggest, ultimately, a cohabitation—an articulation—between criticism and care.
The dash that binds critical-cultural together then signifies, at last, the necessity for critique—the judgments and analysis conferred in the name of responding to perceived and actual crises and concerns—to operate in the service of the cultural—as not only ways of life, but also the maintenance and care and craft that sustain the course of human life.
This is why I have told you the story of Critical-Cultural Communication Theory.
It is now your responsibility to carry forward the lessons of this course.
Use them to understand how power interacts with everyday lives.
Use them to see how dominant forms often exist at the expense of others.
Use them to fight, as Foucault put it, the battle over the nature of truth.
Use them to understand how each of us utilizes platforms and channels and media to try and have our identities, our selves count in some way.
As you do, insist on cultivating a radically contextual, complex analysis.
Insist on growing, rather than diminishing, our public spheres.
Tend to culture.
Cultivate and care.
Grow the world, rather than inflict harm upon on it.
This is our task. This is our responsibility.