A Note from the Unicorns: A Cultural Studies PhD Program responds to Michael Berube

By The Cultural Studies Graduate Group, UC Davis

As students and faculty in one of the only PhD-granting cultural studies programs in the nation, we are prompted to respond to Michael Bérubé’s recent opinion piece, “What’s the Matter with Cultural Studies?” Located in the University of California system where we face dramatic program cutbacks, faculty and staff furloughs, a 40% tuition increase, and a general hiring freeze, and we know firsthand how the trend toward privatization systematically devalues scholarship that critiques profit rather than produces it and threatens the future of programs like ours.  The timing of an attack (couched as a lament) on something Bérubé calls “Cultural Studies” couldn’t be worse–our graduating PhD’s face not only hiring freezes but skepticism. A PhD in cultural studies: what can you do with that?

Bérubé described the effect of cultural studies in higher education in the United States as equivalent to the “carbon footprint of a unicorn.” We disagree. On the one hand, we want to highlight the dangerous ways in which Bérubé’s critique obscures the more pressing issues facing scholars working in cultural studies.  On the other hand, we hardly recognize the field described at some length in Bérubé’s piece and that cannot pass without comment. Through claims unsupported by evidence beyond the anecdotal, Bérubé sketches out a caricature of a field as opposed to a set of dynamic, complex intellectual and institutional practices. We have five main concerns:

1)      By starting with the conventional account of the Birmingham school, a truly interesting and important aspect of what has become known as “cultural studies,” we lose the opportunity to account for the innovations of film studies in the 1920’s and 30’s, Black intellectual thought in the United States, the development of American studies in the inter-war and post-war period, and the emergence of ethnic studies and women’s studies. In fact, what gets called the “Birmingham School” is itself a reworking of British Marxist social theory in response to critiques from these fields.

2)      Centering cultural studies in the U.S. and the U.K. erases any trace of the vibrant cultural studies programs and scholars at work all over the rest of the Americas—(there are degree granting programs in Colombia, Mexico, and many other countries). Cultural studies programs exist in Western European countries such as Germany, France, and Spain, and there are many programs all over Australia, New Zealand, and Asia. Significant versions of what we can term ‘”Cultural Studies” exist in the Middle East and Africa as well. In our own program, students have attended Cultural Studies graduate seminars in Columbia and Japan via teleconferencing, and many have been to conferences and participated in other scholarly events beyond the borders of the U.S. and the U.K.

3)      Bérubé seems to pit cultural studies as an insurgent field against a monolithic and totally institutionalized women’s studies. We view cultural studies as a field of debate that takes a broad understanding of power relations, including but not reducible to class or race, in all spheres of life including the quotidian and not just the “popular.” Approaches such as transnational feminist cultural studies have brought new areas of inquiry into conversation with gender and sexuality studies as well as international area studies. Further, cultural studies has been instrumental in shifting research away from “identity” per se and towards analyses of the ways that being, feeling, acting, and belonging are made possible by the cultural practices of law, economics, medicine, industry, and government.

4)      The claim that cultural studies has not affected positively the disciplinary fields seems especially strange to us. Any caricature of a discipline or interdiscipline as a discretely bounded entity is ahistorical and almost nonsensical. All fields go through transformations and changes, and they are linked to the world at large. There are vast differences in how the field is experienced and practiced between institutions, but we  regularly interact with more than 20 other degree-granting programs at our university, including sociology, history, anthropology, and the School of Law . Certainly, cultural studies experiences friction with many disciplinary locations but this friction is intellectually productive and transformative for all sides. Even the disciplines most resistant to cultural studies have already been transformed by debate and exchange with cultural studies scholars. That said, it is unrealistic—and, in fact, it would be counterproductive to the progressive and egalitarian politics Bérubé ascribes to cultural studies –to expect a diverse and flexible field to singlehandedly bring the disciplines and even the university itself to its knees! A monolithic cultural studies that governs all intellectual practice would be an oxymoron. Cultural Studies programs, like all university endeavors, can influence students and scholarship but only in coalition with broader social and political movements.

5)      We also do not recognize cultural studies as a field characterized by weak treatments of television shows and pop stars. Our field, as we know it, addresses such topics as the “war on terror,” nanotechnology, the visual culture of medicine, immigration and asylum, the corporatization of the university, tourism, the cultural history of food and wine, the science and technology of textiles, environmental racism, psychic formations, transnational media, militarization, memory and genocide, the production of knowledge outside the academy, histories of visual culture, and many many others. While these topics can be studied in other disciplines and fields, what differentiates our practice of cultural studies is a deep historicization of these instances in relation to questions of power.

The cultural studies we practice does not exist only in the world of ideas but in a world that has material constraints. If we are unicorns, perhaps we are invisible to the more privileged practitioners of cultural studies in some of its institutionalized variations. But we work with students and scholars across a large number of fields and in locations around the world. We are not invisible, but we are endangered; not by a “scathing, freewheeling, and woefully underinformed critique of the field,” whether it comes from McChesney or Bérubé. Rather, we face the undermining of the public education mandate not only in California but around the country, one aspect of which includes the devaluing and underfunding of the humanities and allied social sciences. Our interdisciplinary field gives us the tools to study, teach, and write about the current crisis. An indictment such as Bérubé’s ignores the larger institutional structures surrounding processes of knowledge production and directs attention away from the economic catastrophe currently threatening public education on a national scale.


Toby Beauchamp, Abbie Boggs, Marisol Cortez, Cathy Hannabach, Caren Kaplan, Liz Montegary, Magali Rabasa, Ami Sommariva, and Eric Smoodin (for the students, faculty, and staff of the Cultural Studies Graduate Group, UC Davis)

9 replies on “A Note from the Unicorns: A Cultural Studies PhD Program responds to Michael Berube”

Thanks for this great response.

In Colombia, Jesús Martín-Barbero has been key to the development of Estudios Culturales. Here’s an interesting interview with him:

I do think that Cultural Studies implies specific methods but that in attempting to be methodologically pluralistic, training in Cultural Studies does not create enough opportunities to explore and compare approaches. For this reason, I ended up doing cultural studies work in an anthropology department.

Bravo! I found the Berube treatment of the history of Cultural Studies to be profoundly mistaken and symptomatic, in its reductive “history” of the field, of the dangers of institutionalization. (I could not help thinking about Stuart Hall’s concerns about the possibly trajectories of critical theory when working from inside the belly of the beast (”Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies”) while reading Berube, who has clearly been swallowed whole by the corporate university.) This was an excellent, well-reasoned, point-by-point rebuttal. We will be using it in our classroom discussions this semester.

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