A reputable American University recently announced that it would be offering a course in ‘Beyoncé Studies.’ The media reaction, as expected, has been to question the legitimacy of such topics for academic discussion and to put the ‘quality’ of these degrees in question. This isn’t a unique course in this regard by any means: in the UK you can study ghost hunting at Coventry, David Beckham Studies at Staffordshire, Harry Potter at Durham and Jedi Studies at Queens University Belfast. Less eye-catchingly, discussions of ‘the popular’ have become increasingly prominent on all Arts-based degree courses. All these courses receive this suspicious response from the media.
It’s an important topic for this project, Everyday Analysis, which aims to bring the popular into conversation with philosophical and academic discourses not in order to ‘explain’ popular culture but in order to show popular culture not only reveals the underlying structures of our world but continues to offer resistance to those structures (such as academia) and indeed produce new ones.
Is this an agenda shared by degree courses on Beyoncé Knowles? It seems not, judging from the language of the course outline. The course ‘will use Beyoncé’s career as a jumping off point to explore American race, gender and sexual politics.’ This implies that any number of texts or individuals could have provided this ‘spring board’ to introduce already existing and wider issues of race and gender present in academic theory. It borrows a language common in the university that we will look at the Theory or Idea of X through the text of Y. The gesture made here is: ‘look, our academic ideas also explain popular things you like and enjoy as well as just old books’. Crucially, whilst applying them to new things, it largely leaves academic structures intact.
For these courses, it seems, we should be studying these topics despite the fact that we normally see them as simple, basic and unworthy of attention compared to the works of, say, Shakespeare or Hegel. It guarantees the idea that university discourse can explain all and everything; even those things that we usually think of as outside its reach and influence. The university now wants to bring back together two things that it is itself responsible for separating in the first place – the highbrow and the popular.
But it is not doing so in order to rectify its mistake. Far from it, this discourse wants to deny the way that popular culture poses problems to its own language and extend the systematic and limited thought of academia to cover everything.
‘Should we be studying these topics?’ then, is the wrong way of putting the question. Wouldn’t it be better to borrow the language of Foucault and put it this way: it is not a question of whether these topics are ‘worthy’ of study, but a question of asking, why have we historically been saying, with so much vehemence and so much confidence, that these are not subjects for academic discourse, and (now) why do we say that they are?
The question we need to be asking is instead that of what politics it was that split the popular and the academic and what politics is it that brings them back together? These are questions for a sustained study of popular culture, perhaps even a degree course. Provisionally, we might suggest that the politics that brings them back together is the same one that separated them – a politics that privileges one as the key to explaining the other. It is a politics which takes this quite seriously – a politics which even claims to take the popular as ‘seriously’ as the academic.
On the contrary, the best thing about these courses is that there is something humorous about them, as it is hoped there is something humorous about Everyday Analysis. When Charles Lamb wrote his ‘Dissertation on Roast Pig’ in 1829 it was this humorous clash between the everyday and the academic that showed up academic discourse as limited. It showed how a particular (and specifically academic) education and class results in particular readings of the things around you, right down to the way we respond to roast pig. It showed not that there were all sorts of interesting things that roast pig can teach us but that academic language thinks its own limited model can be applied everywhere. At the moment, this self-awareness is lacking both in the way these courses on popular culture present themselves to us and in the media backlash against them.