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
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.
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 frontof
leaving behind my ethnic name and the teasing and bullying it seemed
to provokemy 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 wayEuropean 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 paradigmsthe
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 allAlan 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
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 1990sTricia 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
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 privilegeour 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
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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