Professional Populists in the Culture Wars

The cultural studies revolution rejected universalism and embraced popular culture. This has been a disaster for the humanities and social sciences, but enormously successful in obfuscating growing social inequality and inflating the importance of culture wars.

The war fought over the literary canon in the 1980s-90s could be considered the original “culture war,” in the debased, necrotic form that we have come to know today. This conflict pitted a new guard of New Left cultural studies professionals against the order of things—namely, aesthetic hierarchy, the “canon,” any group of books alleged to be “great,” and therefore required reading for all intellectual and academic aspirants. The target of leftist and progressive agitations was an allegedly “elitist” point of view that privileged the “great books,” as well as the grand theories sometimes articulated within those books. These culture wars made strange bedfellows of Birmingham School leftists and French theory enthusiasts, who opposed stuffy historicists and reactionary aesthetes stuck on things like the value, quality, and the continuity of the Western tradition. In those days, it seemed transgressive to write about Madonna instead of Moby Dick, and “subversive” to take Dallas (the TV series) as seriously as one would take Hamlet. Cultural conservatives like Allan Bloom and William F. Buckley, Jr. decried these new trends in academic life as stultifying, but their own conservative readings of the classics were mediocre and boring, content as they were to laud the greatness in these books, without asking great questions of them.

By the 1980s, the humanities and social sciences seemed in desperate need of a makeover, and popular culture was very... popular. More than that, there was a genuine creative energy in popular music and film, with artists like the Sugar Hill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa, the Sex Pistols, and Joy Division making us dance and sending a chill down our parents’ and professors’ spines. Malcolm McClaren rallied “Buffalo Gals” and remastered Madame Butterfly. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and the seemingly infinite profusion of strangeness on early MTV gave young people license to chill about the classics and the boring secondary literature that one was expected to master. Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher may have been the political leaders of the Anglosphere, but youth-driven street fashion had the power to disturb the Burberry-clad commuters in New York and London.

Wanting to participate in this explosion of youthful creativity, countercultural academics in the humanities and social sciences decided they were done with the Ivory Tower—at least, in theory. No longer wanting to stand aloof as mere observers or critics, and feeling unable to enjoy or produce anything truly new or useful, left academics longed to be of the people and to give voice to the pleasures of fandom from within the confines of a profession they sought to conquer.