Click here or stream above to listen to Matt Sienkiewicz’s interview with Chuck Klosterman and Seth Vannatta. Seth Vannatta is the editor of the new book, Chuck Klosterman and Philosophy: The Real and the Cereal.
Chuck Klosterman is a tricky character for a cultural studies professor such as myself. On the one hand, it’s fantastic that there is someone out there getting paid really well to make smart observations about popular culture. On the other, it’s disappointing that it’s not me. On a third, slightly more serious hand, Chuck brings into sharp relief a difficulty embedded in the academic field of cultural studies.
As a discipline, cultural studies is committed to the breaking down of boundaries between high and low culture. It is founded on the principle of blurring the binaries that can so easily allow taste preferences to serve as proxies for the politics of privilege. And yet, at the same time, the structure of the profession of professing requires the maintenance of a variety of sharp borders that seem to stand in direct opposition to these commitments. A journal is either peer-reviewed or it is not. A conference, generally, is either properly academic or it is something else.
Klosterman’s work not only blurs things that us cultural studies professors celebrate by taking “low” culture seriously, but also in a way that inevitably makes us nervous. We are employed to talk about popular culture because an institutional vetting process has branded our thoughts, opinions and research as serious. Everyone has thoughts about The Hunger Games. Students pay to hear mine because I’ve persuaded a variety of well-regarded universities and journals that my opinion is worth hearing. Klosterman subverts that process, going instead to the court of public consumption for approval. His work is taken relatively seriously because, well, lots of people seem to enjoy taking it relatively seriously. For some in our field, this may feel like a threat.
Of course, it shouldn’t. Culture can and should be interrogated from a variety of approaches and methodologies. And we should be happy to have our categories pushed, prodded and occasionally penetrated by authors like Klosterman, who writes with an honest interest in understanding the workings of popular culture. His approach to criticism threatens our binaries in just the right way, forcing us to question our goals and limitations as scholars and cultural critics. It offers an object, ideally one among many, against which to compare the work being produced by institutionalized cultural studies. It’s a chance to reflect on what’s we like about the field and what might bear improving. For example, we could, perhaps, write a bit more lucidly and, as much as it will hurt, be a bit more considerate with the use of jargon. We could even try to use a few fewer commas.
The discussion between me, Klosterman and Seth Vannatta posted here addresses some of the issues discussed above and whole bunch of other stuff as well. It is also, I warn, a bit of a commercial for Chuck Klosterman and Philosophy: The Real and the Cereal, available at all the obvious on and offline places you might think it would be.