On the political responsibilities of cultural studies
I begin with a single premise: the project of cultural studies is to tell better stories about what’s going on, and to begin to enable imagining new possibilities for a future that can be reached from the present— one more humane and just than that promised by the trajectories we find ourselves on. Cultural studies then is a form of conjunctural analysis, which re-describes a context, often viewed with some sense of pessimism and even despair, into one of possibilities, by rejecting all forms of simplification and reduction, and embracing the complexity, contradiction and contingency of the world. This is, I assume, what Williams had in mind when he spoke of “making hope practical, rather than despair convincing” (Williams 1983: 240). One has to understand what is happening in order to figure out how to go about changing it: “It seems to me that the dimension of what is to be done can only appear within a field of real forces . . . If you want to struggle, here are some key points, here some lines of forces, here are some constrictions and blockages . . . Of course [you need] to know on what field of real forces we need to get our bearings in order to make a tactically effective analysis” (Foucault 2007: 3). The question of politics is not where we want to be but how we get from where we are to where we want to be, hopefully in fundamentally democratic ways, which prevent us from imposing our moral certainties on others, and sliding into what Deleuze and Guattari describe as the micro-fascisms inside all of us. If bad stories make bad politics, then better stories, while not guaranteeing better politics, open the imagination—of both possibilities and strategies.
Lawrence Grossberg is Professor of Communication Studies and Cultural Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.