Culture Machine, Reviews


Henry A. Giroux and Patrick Shannon (eds) (1997) Education and Cultural Studies: Towards a Performative Practice.

New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-91914-2

Ben Knights

For the British participant, one of the most exciting strands within the continued transmutations of Cultural Studies over the past ten years has been the elaboration of the discipline's engagement with pedagogy, its re-engagement in a broad sense with th e politics of education and of the classroom. For those of us who so to speak grew up on Williams, this might well seem like a return to roots, if a subject so resolutely given to the deconstruction of its own metaphorical stock might be said to possess roots. (See Nannette Aldred and Martin Ryle's recent Teaching Culture: the Long Revolution in Cultural Studies, NIACE, 1999.) More recently, Grossberg's musings on Birmingham in America, or Aronowitz and Giroux's own reflections on 'postmodern pedagogy' suggest how a reflexive attention to practice might underpin a cultural politics. So a title like that of Giroux and Shannon promises hope and excitement, but in the event the book proved a disappointment. It is in fact a very mixed bag of articles, mostly published in the journal Education / Pedagogy / Cultural Studies in the early and mid-90s. Nothing wrong with that, but the act of collection into a book and the 'New York and London' signal distracts from the predominant address of the contributors to what strikes from this side of the Atlantic as an in many ways rather parochial set of concerns. There could be an imperialism of angst as well as one of assurance, and the publisher's assumption that all eyes are glued to the USA says more about academic publishing than the application of the contents outside the 'culture wars' of the 90s USA. Given Cultural Studies' commitment to the contemporary, there is of course always a problem about what survives the moment, a problem all too often overcome by a kind of intellectual continental drift, throwing up a mountain range of canonical theorists in a flat landscape of transience. And one thing struggling for survival is the intellectual's attempt to find firm ground within the space supposedly vacated by the left. (The book is dedicated to Paolo Freire, and starts with the obligatory meditations on the role of the 'public intellectual.') It is significant that several contributors evidently see themselves as addressing the 'intellectual and cultural worker': the collection seems to be haunted by a self aggrandisement as an intellectual proletariat, though old lefties like myself might want to complain that production in an older sense still goes on, even if now frequently out of sight of the western campus. Which all sounds an ungracious note, and there are items to attend to here. For those concerned to understand the educational implications of the Blair project and the European 'third way', Douglas Noble's essay 'Let Them Eat Skills' - even allowing for still significant differences between US and European capitalism - provides the wherewithal for a pertinent critique of the 'skills agenda' current in British Higher Education. (As with penal policy, and stymied by the mythology of 'globalisation', New Labour suffers from a fatal attraction to the worst aspects of US institutional practice. Noble has cogent things to say about a 'veritable frenzy of standardization', and 'get-tough accountability'.) Perhaps, he ends, 'the supreme irony ... is that [this approach] trots out work as the pivotal source of student motivation and as the principal purpose of education at precisely the time when the nature and availability of work is so much up in the air. Never mind thinking for a living; the people I know will do anything for a living ....' But in the end - and with the exception of Robert Miklitsch's 'Punk Pedagogy, or Performing Contradiction' - what one misses in this collection (even in the contributions by Giroux or David Trend) is the sort of specifics, the fine grain of classroom process through which both a critique and new beginnings might be sought. One would have liked more of this, but the costiveness with respect to 'thick description' may actually be symptomatic of something else. One thing Cultural Studies derives from its left antecedents is a tendency to ethical superiority, a point implicit in Katie Urch's provocative 'Fighting Academic Agoraphobia'. Where education is concerned, this leads to an inclination to write off the work done in the sphere of Education and indeed other disciplines as either contaminated by collusion or as lacking the theoretical stamina for self-critique. (There is a salutary warning of the assertive ignorance to which this leads in Giroux's own remarks on History.) The discipline's own position of ethical and epistemological superiority could lead it, one feels, to re-inventing an awful lot of wheels. Kenneth Burke (who makes a welcome walk-on appearance, dressed-up rather patronisingly as a 'proto-cultural critic' in Urch's piece) still has much to teach us, and it was one of Burke's pupils, Frank Lentricchia, who remarked that 'the radical mind has no privileged mode of persuasion available to it; there is no morally pure, no epistemologically secure, no linguistically uncontaminated route to radical change' (Criticism and Social Change, Chicago, 1983). Heterodox versions of psychoanalysis (as in the Tavistock tradition) have provided a fertile ground for re-thinking pedagogy, and Sharon Todd's 'Psychoanalytical Questions, Pedagogical Possibilities, and Authority', drawing as it does on the classic work of Shoshana Felman, pays welcome attention to the dynamics of authority, noting that 'unconscious desire is an intervening moment between student and teacher relations', and questioning 'the dubious adoption of ostensibly non-authoritarian practices to redress the inequalities of authority'. Putting that together with Giroux's rejection of 'pedagogy as a technique or a set of neutral skills' and following through what in his essay Cameron McCarthy calls the 'contrapuntal nature of educational experience', we can glimpse a little more of the nature of the work ahead. But to this necessary work this book makes only an oblique and sketchy contribution.