Featured Guest:
Professor George Lipsitz

Each issue of Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900 to Present) will feature an interview, or a conversation, with a preeminent scholar in the field of American popular culture studies.

This inaugural Spring 2002 edition, we are featuring George Lipsitz, Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and author of Rainbow at Midnight: Life and Labor in the 1940's, Time Passages: Collective Memory and American Popular Culture, Dangerous Crossroads: The Sidewalks of St. Louis, and A Life in the Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (which won both the Eugene M. Kayden Press Book Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Race Relations).

Professor Lipsitz is virtually a father of Americana: The Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture and this journal. Although he is not associated with us in any formal sense, his seminal essay “Listening to Learn and Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies,” published in American Quarterly (1990) and reprinted in Locating American Studies: The Evolution of a Discipline (1999) made us aware of the need to form an institute and publish a journal dedicated to the art of listening to American popular culture because here we would find the “voices” that write, play, film, photograph, manufacture, tell, dance, sculpt, paint, and thus explain our American story, our American history.

Last month, we caught up with Professor Lipsitz to ask him about his career, the state of American popular culture studies, and his now famous essay.

Americana: How did you first get interested in the study of American popular culture?

Lipsitz: Some years ago a reporter from Musician magazine asked jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim a similar question about when his interest in music began. Ibrahim said he understood the logic of the question but that he couldn't answer it, because music had always been part of his day to day living. I feel the same way about my relationship to popular culture. I can't remember a time when I didn't have a deep investment in music, in sports, in story-telling of all kinds.

In recent years, I have come to understand more clearly how these investments were shaped. My parents grew up in the 1920s and 1930s. As children of working class immigrant parents, they viewed education, ideas, and culture with reverence. All the humiliation and subordination that they and their parents faced for being foreigners, for being Jews, for being working class conflicted with the self-esteem and self-respect they felt for themselves and for their community. The public schools offered them an opportunity to demonstrate their merit, to display their talents and abilities, to prove that they could master all the prestigious cultural forms that were considered the private preserve of more privileged groups. They read the great books, listened to classical music, and became knowledgeable about sculpture and painting. This created in them a disposition against popular culture, a fear that common tastes might make them appear undiscerning and unworthy. At the same time, they listened and danced to swing music, loved motion pictures, and played and followed sports. The celebratory "America" of the New Deal "cultural front" turned immigrants and their children from unwanted aliens into redemptive insiders. Like millions of other ethnic Americans, my parents secured a measure of cultural and political inclusion for themselves through the populism and celebrations of regional and ethnic specificity that fueled the New Deal "culture of unity." Yet the years after World War II transformed popular culture in important ways. The enormous expansion of consumer spending, the rise of new communications media, and the incorporation of distinct European American ethnic cultures and communities into a more generalized white identity left me with a different view of culture than the one that made sense to my parents. Like Jim Burden in Willa Cather's My Antonia, the comfortable middle class home, community, and culture in which I grew up felt like a kind of suffocating tyranny to me. I was drawn to rhythm and blues radio programs, country and western songs, film noir movies, and the hard scrabble world I imagined that professional athletes inhabited. It was my way of re-enacting the popular front—of leaving behind my ethnic name and the teasing and bullying it seemed to provoke—my losing myself in an "America" defined by the exotic hometowns of baseball players printed on the backs of baseball cards, by the "down home" humor of disc jockeys, and by the ferocious theatricality, aggressive festivity, and sensuality of mass mediated working class culture. It was also a way of dissenting from the assimilation my parents fought so hard to secure, to invert the hierarchies of U.S. society and find truths in its more desperate and neglected precincts.

Americana: What first made you think American popular culture was important enough for academic study? In other words, what's so important about American popular culture?

Lipsitz: I never intended to be a scholar of popular culture. In the early 1970s, I was part of a radical collective that concentrated our efforts by supporting an oppositional rank and file caucus in Teamsters Local 688 in St. Louis. When we were totally and completely defeated, I enrolled in graduate school hoping to learn enough about labor history to understand our failure. Yet the methods of labor history at that time were better suited to discovering the history of labor's institutions than of workers themselves. I turned to popular culture as part of a worldwide movement by activists, intellectuals, and scholars to replace "labor history" with "workers history." Workers left very little in the way of archival evidence about the past, but working class culture turned out for me to provide the key to understanding the "strategies of independence" that fueled the mass strikes of the 1940s and shaped subsequent working class cultures of opposition, including the one I encountered in St. Louis. Those studies taught me that many scholars had already studied culture in that way—European scholars Stuart Hall, Antonio Gramsci, Mikhail Bakhtin, but also those working in "the other American Studies tradition"—Toni Cade Bambara, C.L.R. James, Americo Paredes, Le Roi Jones, Leslie Marmon Silko, Johnny Otis, Horace Tapscott, Robert Warshow, and John Okada, among others.

Americana: Was there any specific catalyst for writing “Listening to Learn, Learning to Listen: Popular Culture, Cultural Theory, and American Studies”?

Lipsitz: My conscious intention was to encourage scholars in American Studies to use our disagreements with each other in more productive ways. I think that our work is so difficult that we can't afford to avoid any methods or theory that might help us. I think that if you want other people to see the truth in what you are writing, you have to recognize the truth in their work. You may not like what they have to say, but there is a reason for it. I think we can learn from everybody. But we don't act like we can. We engage in Oedipal battles against the oldest or newest paradigms. We ridicule work we don't understand. We confuse disagreements over methods and theories with moral worth. In writing "Listening to Learn" I was attempting to prevent unnecessary ruptures within American Studies. I was hearing a great deal of hostility in the field against cultural studies from scholars trained in the myth-image-symbol school, and equally harsh (and unfounded) attacks on post-structuralism and other kinds of "European" cultural theory by scholars trained in the myth-image-symbol and social science traditions. Cultural studies scholars and post-structuralists did not appreciate adequately the accomplishments of previous paradigms—the spaces they opened up under difficult conditions. I thought these arguments obscured the value of cultural theory in general, but also obscured the rich critical traditions in American studies that had not named themselves as theoretical schools. I felt that I had learned things of value from all of these traditions. I didn't see why we couldn't have it all—Alan Trachtenberg and Stuart Hall, Leo Marx and Jacques Derrida, Janice Radway and Henry Nash Smith, Celia Cruz and Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Lacan and Chaka Khan.

Americana: In “Listening to Learn,” you noted that we need not fear European cultural theory (and that American studies even seemed to anticipate many of its moves). Have you seen that theory integrated into American studies in ways you would deem positive since 1990? Or have you seen Americanists veer way from it? (In other words, what are your current thoughts on European cultural theory)?

Lipsitz: I think that American Studies at its best produces a sophisticated blend of empirical and theoretical approaches to cultural questions. The work that has been produced in the past decade has been exemplary in that respect. Look at the grounded uses of theory that permeate the writings of senior scholars like Robin Kelley, Janice Radway, Dana Nelson, Chela Sandoval, Rosa Linda Fregoso, and Herman Gray. Look at the first books produced by American Studies scholars in the 1990s—Tricia Rose's Black Noise, Rob Walser's Running with the Devil, Jenifer Devere Brody's Impossible Purities, Farah Jasmine Griffin's Who Set You Flowin’, George Sanchez's Becoming Mexican American, Lizabeth Cohen's Making a New Deal, Lynn Spigel's Make Room for TV. Look at the extraordinary work in American Studies being conducted by social scientists, by Arlene Davila in Latinos, Inc., Claire Jean Kim in Bitter Fruit, Pierette Hondagneu-Sotelo in Gendered Transitions, Rick Bonus in Locating Filipino Americana. Look at the books that have been thrown forth in the past few years as the first publications by a new generation of scholars: Helena Simonett's Banda, Nayan Shah's Contagious Divides, Susan Phillips's Wallbangin’, Rachel Buff's Immigration and the Political Economy of Home, Joe Austin's Takin’ the Train, Matt Garcia's A World of their Own, and Melani McAlister's Epic Encounters. This wonderful work has more than fulfilled the promise we hoped for in 1990.

Americana: While you do allow for some use of European cultural theory, you also warn against being consumed by it. Indeed, in “Listening to Learn,” you argued, “In my view, American studies would be served best by a theory that refuses hypostatization into a method, that grounds itself in the study of concrete cultural practices, that extends the definition of culture to the broadest possible contexts of cultural production and reception, that recognizes the role played by national histories and traditions in cultural contestation, and that understands that struggles over meaning are inevitably struggles over resources.” Have you seen your call come to fruition?

Lipsitz: I think that the cultural criticism carried on by artists in recent years has been ahead of the cultural criticism carried on by scholars. Horace Tapscott's posthumously published memoir Songs of the Unsung is one of the most important books ever written. The poetry and spoken word art of Marisela Norte, Roberta Hill, Luis Alfaro, and Elizabeth Alexander (among others) has been amazing. But young scholars attuned to this work have played an important role in its development through their critiques, compliments, and all around championing of community artists who make an art out of talking back. I greatly admire what Michelle Habell-Pallan has done for a broad range of Latina cultural creators, how Tricia Rose has influenced women in hip hop, how Josh Kun's scholarship and journalism so brilliantly focuses attention on the new art emerging all around us.

Americana: In “Listening to Learn,” you urge scholars to consider such popular culture artifacts as the Lindy-hop, Rupert Murdoch, and the Angry Samoans; “we neglect them only at our peril,” you note. We take it from your previous comments that you have seen scholars pay more attention to such codes of popular culture? The field is no longer dominated by research on such figures as Ralph Ellsion and on such themes as the popular detective fiction of Chester Himes?

Lipsitz: It is not easy to look at popular culture both from close-up and far away. But scholars who have some love and respect for the people they study have produced wonderful work explaining how popular culture enables people to make meaning for themselves under circumstances they do not control. Ruby Tapia's research on photojournalism and racialized motherhood, Brenda Bright's work on low riders, Lilia Fernandez's studies of house music, Michael Eric Dyson's interventions in hip hop, Ryan Moore's study of white youths involved in punk rock, Michael Willard's examination of skate-boarding, Sarah Banet-Weiser's explorations into beauty pageants come to mind. Historians have been particularly successful in studying commercial culture. Nan Enstad's Ladies of Labor is an extraordinary study of the intersections between popular fiction and fashion for working women in the 1920s. Linda Maram's explorations into Filipino participation in boxing and taxi dance halls are superb.

Americana: In the essay, you note that university budgets shape the research being done. At one point, you assert, “[S]truggles over meaning are also struggles over resources. They arbitrate what is permitted and what is forbidden; they help determine who will be included and who will be excluded; they influence who gets to speak and who gets silenced.” How do you see the university structure and budget as shaping American popular culture studies now, twelve years later?

Lipsitz: I think we are headed toward a two-tiered system of education and a two-tiered system of mass communication. Segregation by race and class makes it very difficult for people to see the things that connect them to or divide them from other people. As universities increasingly train a small elite and absorb the indirect costs of research and production for corporations, cultural studies runs the risk of becoming the research and development arm of the advertising industry. We have to do as much as we can inside the universities, but we have to reach outside them and connect with the communities and cultures that feel most deeply the oppressive, unequal, and unjust nature of our society.

Americana: Were you disappointed that as late as 1990 American Studies still needed to hear the message you delivered in “Listening to Learn”?

Lipsitz: Like any of us, I could spend all day talking about what I think is wrong with our field, our work, our personalities, our ethics, our morals, our citizenship, our scholarship, and our teaching. It hurts to see us squander the resources we have and the mission that has been entrusted to us as a result of our privilege—our ability to speak and be heard in many different venues. We have the same contradictions as anybody else in this society, the same selfishness, sexism, competitiveness, greed, heartlessness, and cruelty. But the things we are doing wrong are still less impressive to me than what we are doing that is right. The tide can't be pushed back. Our times have generated a generation of intellectuals, artists, and activists who know what time it is. They know what to do, why, and when. We're all lucky to be part of this moment.

Americana: What is the future of American popular culture studies?

Lipsitz: The only person I know who thinks he or she can predict the future is Lee "Hacksaw" Hamilton, a San Diego sportscaster. His predictions about who is going to win forthcoming football games are made so confidently, you wonder why they even bother to play the games. And of course, I show a lot of deference to anyone whose parents named him "Hacksaw." He probably has brothers and sisters named Ripsaw, Chainsaw, and Jigsaw. But the truth is, Hacksaw rarely gets it right. The future holds surprises that we can't anticipate. All in all, we'd rather have it that way. The challenge is not to know what the future will bring, but to be ready for the things it will demand of us. Count Basie's great drummer Jo Jones once said his job was not so much to play the drums as it was to get himself into the kind of condition where he could play the things he could imagine. I think that's our job too.

Americana: What would you call for now, in 2002, in the field of American popular culture studies? Is there a current crisis like the one you noted in 1990?

Lipsitz: We have to rethink the links that connect the nation, the citizen subject, sexuality, desire, and consumption. The work of Rod Ferguson, M. Jacqui Alexander, Ruby Tapia, Nayan Shah, Judith Halberstam, and many others are pointing us in that direction and helping us understand what we need to know.

Americana: What are you currently working on in the realm of American popular culture studies?

Lipsitz: I am doing a comparison between the WB network television show "Pop Stars" and its "creation" of the group Eden's Crush, and the ways in which Detroit techno artists have used many of the same technologies and knowledges for very different kinds of cultural creation. The same things that can kill us, can cure us, if we know how to use them in the right ways.

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