culture studies and capital markets: parallel or converging?

Railroad_1Yesterday I had drinks with a friend from Toronto. We talked about the crisis that besets cultural studies. Once the new kid on the academic block, the field is now in steep decline, losing both students and credibility at an impressive clip.

The crisis was played out recently in the pages of Time Magazine. Several people were asked to identify the formative trends of our time. David Brooks, Mark Dery, Esther Dyson, Malcolm Gladwell, Moby, Tim O’Reilly, and Clay Shirky took up the assignment and several of them distinguished themselves.

Things did not turn out quite so well for Mark Dery, author and "cultural critic," as Time describes him. He piped up early but his contribution was ill advised and off target. He was to speak 3 more times and then fall silent. (It is impossible to say whether he spoke infrequently or that he was edited out, but then these outcomes are, perhaps, symptomatic of the same problem.)

Dery rolled out the idea that technology has separated us. "More and more, we’re alone in public." We were just putting away the hankies when he piped up again to say "the 18-year-old with a modem is just a click away from a universe of fellow travelers." Now we were obliged to wonder whether he did, or did not, mean to imply that ‘more and more, we’re together in private.’

It may be that Dery wished to evoke both ideas, as bookends for his argument, but in these the last days of the paradigm, it is more likely that he is merely reproducing one of the chief problems of the field: the use of fixed piece, pre fab analysis when something bespoke is called for. The cultural theorists look for a target and fire at will. The discourse is found to be totalizing, essentializing, fetishizing, epistemologically presumptious, ideologically deplorable, or otherwise insufficiently scrupulous. And the cultural studies crew believe themselves to be deeply scrupulous.

Scrupulous to a fault because they are now intellectually incapable. The Time debate was as close to a fair test as we are likely ever to have. A cultural critic now called upon to compete with a musician, several journalists and a couple of technological savants. It turned out he had almost nothing useful to say. Indeed, as we have seen, confronting the big issues of the day, he was almost completely silent.

Dommage, ca. But not surprising. Denis Dutton gave us fair warning of the problems here more than a decade ago. But the infatuation was intense and certain scholars made life long committments from which intrication will be tricky. (Chances are no one thought to insist on a prenup.) How appalling it must be to see this discourse now under challenge and so widely. We may expect to see the cultural theorists hauled before Judge Judy any day now. ("Your honor, I believe these people stole my college education.")

The cultural studies shelf at the book store grows more slender with each passing year. The conditions of knowledge are so scrupulous that it’s hard to construct an argument, and almost impossible to sustain an entire book. Most discourse is now a recitation of the verities and even Routledge cannot recycle these forever. (They will of course try.)

Students are now bailing out. Were it not for the fact that cultural studies was for awhile the only corner of the campus in which students could pursue their interest in contemporary culture, this defection might have happened long ago. (And this might be part of the problem. Cultural studies are better represented on campus, and with alternatives come choices, and with choices, come winners and losers. As long as cultural studies were sole source, they could misbehave themselves…which is to say, I guess, that the cultural studies frankenstein had several accomplices on campus.  Those who staged the embargo against the study of contemporary culture must share some of the responsibility.)

Then there was the Sokal hoax. A physicist persuaded the journal Social Text to accept for publication a paper entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" as a contribution to "liberatory post modern science." Professor Sokal revealed that his paper was designed to show the limitless credulity of Social Text, to demonstrate that Social Text was, in effect, incapable of simple acts of scholarly discrimination. The effects were devasting. The culture studies crew had brought ridicule upon themselves.

Mind you, this community of scholars doesn’t always need intervention. A lot of prose is so bad, so self indulgent, that Denis Dutton staged a contest to honor its excesses. Professor Dutton notes,

Thus in A Defense of Poetry, English Prof. Paul Fry writes: "It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness – rather than the will to power – of its fall into conceptuality." If readers are baffled by a phrase like "disclosing the absentation of actuality," they will imagine it’s due to their own ignorance. Much of what passes for theory in English departments depends on this kind of natural humility on the part of readers. The writing is intended to look as though Mr. Fry is a physicist struggling to make clear the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Of course, he’s just an English professor showing off.

Finally, there were the defections. Marjorie Garber, William R. Kenan Jr. professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard, is widely known for Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (1992), Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life (1995) and Sex and Real Estate (2000). Talk about an English professor showing off. But recently Garber published what she called "an old fashioned kind of book" entitled Shakespeare After All. From someone like Garber, this is nothing less than a recantation, and, for the cultural studies crew, a terrible loss.

Fine, that was drinks. I then proceeded to a dinner hosted by Pip Coburn, a guy who runs Coburn Ventures a company that sells data and perspective in capital markets. To be honest, Pip is a little disconcerting. I once shared a 50 minute limo ride with him. All the while he was on the phone and never once did I guess what he did for a living. (This is a very good way to initimidate an anthropologist. If you can give up 50 minutes of spoken testimony and not give the game away…well, we like to think you just can’t.)

Pip asked me to say a couple of words and I decided to regale the 15 Wall Street types in attendance on the topic of "cultural literacy." I had about 12 minutes to speak. I suggested that a deeper and entirely current knowledge of contemporary culture was important for fund managers and stock brokers because a) this culture shaped consumer taste and preference and b) was itself shaped by a steady stream of innovation and discontinuity, c) early warning was the road to profit, and d) no warning was the road to ruin.

I offered two examples: that Levi-Strauss missed hip hop in the middle 1990s and managed to lose $1 billion dollars in sales that year. The money manager who knew that this trend was on the way, and that Levi-Strauss was "unresponsive," would be in a position to trade accordingly.

My second example had to do with the "great room" trend in North American homes. My argument was that this trend must tell us that there is a change in the North American notion of the family and that early warning of this trend would serve as fair warning of developments that would one day run through the capital markets. 

It was only while I was going to sleep that I thought of a third argument. It’s a bit "house that Jack built" but then these things sometimes are. I have argued that Levitt might be wrong when he explains the drop in violent crime in the American city. A competing or additional explanation is that the new cultural authority of hip hop helped to broker a massive transfer of esteem from the suburban teen to the urban one. As long as hip hop prevails, the urban teen is well compensated (even when his socioeconomic status remains asymmetrical), but the moment the trend moves on, we might expect urban crime to rise once more. And this must have consequences for property markets and eventually capital markets.

Someone disputed my argument with conviction and skill, and I began to think that in fact the capital markets may not need cultural literacy after all. It is an open question.

If we decide that the capital markets need this kind of knowledge, we would then have an extraordinary incentive to develop our stocks of cultural knowledge and the indicators with which we track changes in consumer taste and preferences. One of my dinner companions told that he spends the day monitoring 8 monitors. I am guessing that these are Bloomberg-type data sources.

If the capital markets decide to embrace cultural literacy, Bloomberg is going to have to add a terminal or two. More to the point of this over long blog entry, the cultural studies are going to find themselves confronted with a very worldly problem, playing host indeed to the very capitalists they now so disdain.  That is, if they are still in business. 


Brooks, David, Mark Dery, Esther Dyson, Malcolm Gladwell, Moby, and Clay Shirky. 2005. What’s Next Forum: The Road Ahead. Time Magazine. October 24, 2005, pp. 80-86.

Dutton, Denis. 1992. Delusions of Postmodernism. Literature and Aesthetics. 2: 23-35 and here.

Dutton, Denis. 1999. Language Crimes: A lesson in how not to write, courtesy of the Professoriate. Wall Street Journal. February 5, 1999. here.

McCracken, Grant. 2005. Rap and the esteem economy. This Blog Sits Athere.

Smith, Dinitia. 2005. A scholar of the outre returns to Shakespearean Basics. Wall Street Journal. January 11, 2005.

Stearns, Peter N. 2003. Expanding the Agenda of Cultural Research. The Chronicle Review. Chronicle of Higher Education. 49 (34): B7. here.

5 thoughts on “culture studies and capital markets: parallel or converging?

  1. Peter

    Very interesting post, Grant (as usual).

    A comment on the Sokal affair: The credulity of cultural studies researchers when presented with gibberish purporting to be theoretical physics is matched only by the credulity of theoretical physicists when presented with gibberish purporting to be theoretical physics. This is shown by the Affair Bogdanov, in which French twin brothers gained PhDs in theoretical physics (in 1999 and 2002) and published papers in respectable journals (including “Annals of Physics”) for work which other theoretical physicists thought was nonsense. For an account by one leading physicist, see:

    If physicists themselves are fooled by such nonsense, what hope is there for the rest of us.

    But perhaps we should not be too hard on the journal referees and PhD examiners in physics for their credulity, since the subject is already so weird. Gerhard Mack, a German physicist wrote in 1994 on the question, “What is a thing?”

    His answer is that a thing is an object in an appropriate category (a certain mathematical structure):

    Even for those of us with a knowledge of category theory, Mack’s work is beyond parody.

  2. Jared

    First time commenter, not-so-long-time reader:

    I love your ideas, Grant, but as you’ve said you managed to acquire your education in a fairly unique setting. What is your average would-be-cultural-maven to do? They can’t get a liberal arts degree, because almost all the liberal arts programs are infested with cultural studies or gerolatry. They can’t get a business degree for reasons you’ve discussed before. What can they do besides joining the Israeli military?

  3. Grant

    Peter, I am guessing that paradigmatic perplexities occur in physics because the world is difficult, not because, as is the case in cultural studies, the writer is self indulgent. Thanks! Grant

    Jared, thanks, I think this must be why God created MIT and the comparative media program. Mind you, my years of service in the Israeli military were really very useful, too. (And here I am using the usual cryptological convention in which “Israeli military” stands in for “University of Chicago.”) Thanks, Grant

  4. steve

    The problem of useful cultural analysis seems to me to be a “hole in the middle” of the scale of analysis. We have lots of local weather reports (“women in New York City are wearing brown boots a lot”) and some long-term climate analysis (“identity is fracturing” or “cultural diversity within developed countries is increasing”) but not much at the level of the weather front or high-pressure system. We’re not even sure what the equivalent sort of report or theory would be.

    My guess is that progress here can only come with the right kind of mesoscopic analysis, the equivalent of weather fronts and systems, where we could predict the partly contingent structure of culture change. Specific content may vary, but I bet there exist repeating patterns such as cultural eddies that form behind passing trends, or the way a fad coalesces out of a surrounding medium of social interaction like a hurricane over a warm ocean.

  5. Grant

    Steve, beauty, that is precisely the issue, or one of them anyhow, so it turns out that you do have to be a weatherman… if we can persuade the capital markets that there is utility here, someone will pay us to build these darn things. another task for the reinvented b-school. Thanks, Grant

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