Communication Currents

Cultural Studies in the Past, Present, and Future Tense–Notes on An Interview with Lawrence Grossberg

June 1, 2013
Critical and Cultural Studies

One of the lessons I learned from my former colleague, James Carey, is that the history of “communication studies” always asks communication researchers to pose certain kinds of questions in the present, though that history seldom is acknowledged or is what the research ostensibly is about. In an effort to revisit and rethink how the history of communication studies developed in the United States over the second half of the twentieth century through an encounter with “cultural studies,” and to ask how that history continues to shape contemporary research, I designed a special issue of the journal Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies comprised of interviews with a generation of scholars who were influential in bringing cultural studies into the study of communication and media. The special issue features interviews with Stuart Hall, Armand Mattelart, Umberto Eco, Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg, Janice Radway, Meaghan Morris, and Graeme Turner–a collection of voices that attests to the multiple pathways and the cross-currents of cultural studies, and communication studies’ engagement with it. Of all these interviews, the one with Lawrence Grossberg most directly addresses cultural studies’ complicated, contradictory, and often fraught relation to communication studies in the United States, and to the history of academic associations of communication research such as the National Communication Association.

Grossberg was my colleague (my intellectual and academic “playmate”) at the University of Illinois–Urbana Champaign from 1985-1994, when cultural studies was beginning to have a marked impact on communication studies in the U.S. and particularly from the University of Illinois. In 1968-69, he was the first (and possibly only) U.S. student to study at the newly formed Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in England.  Grossberg’s studies there launched his lifelong friendship and collaborations with Stuart Hall (the CCCS’s director from 1968-1979) and a generation of fellow graduate students such as Charlotte Brunsdon, Ian Chambers, John Clarke, Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie, and David Morley, whose work collectively shaped “British Cultural Studies’” rapidly recognized identity outside the UK after the 1970s. According to Grossberg, when he finished his studies at the CCCS, he asked Stuart Hall where in the U.S. he (Grossberg) might continue the kind of study that excited him at the CCCS. Hall suggested he consider working with James Carey at the University of Illinois, who was beginning to propose a “cultural approach to communication” which gestured as much to contemporary British intellectuals such as Raymond Williams and Hall as to a North American lineage of communication studies which Carey extracted from the early Chicago School, the writing of Canadian historians and theorists Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, and the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Grossberg followed Hall’s suggestion, and in many ways Carey became as much of a mentor to him as was Hall. After having received his PhD at Illinois through the Institute of Communications Research, followed by a brief professorship at Purdue, Grossberg returned to the University of Illinois in the early 1980s as a professor.

Over the 1980s, Grossberg was actively involved in rethinking the aims and practices of U.S. communication studies, in part through British Cultural Studies. He frequently has pointed out it was no small coincidence that cultural studies entered the U.S. during the 1980s first and foremost through communication departments, since British Cultural Studies often examined the politics of late-20th century culture through references to various popular media. However, he and others have been cautious about explaining cultural studies as primarily about media. To the extent that cultural studies has been interested in the multiple conditions shaping contemporary life, cultural studies never assumes that media are more important than other practices or that media can be understood in isolation from other practices. In that sense, he sees cultural studies as profoundly an interdisciplinary project, and a project suspect of the ways that earlier forms of analysis and lines of questioning (including those coming from communication studies) are necessarily suited to understanding a changing world. As he puts it, we should never allow our theory, analytic methods, or politics to run too far out in front of the hard work of examining all over again what has and hasn’t changed in the world.

I interviewed Grossberg to illustrate some of the contradictions and complicated collaborations of asking new questions about and from communication studies, but also to suggest his professional story is a useful allegory for thinking about thetransformations and deeply rooted dispositions of communication studies in the U.S. over the last thirty years. Grossberg’s interest in bringing popular music into communication research (an interest dating back to his well-attended courses on popular music in a department of communication at Illinois) was driven as much by his interest in “youth cultures” as by his insistence that communication studies devoted too much attention to the messages and meanings of visual media--that music is about making bodies move, and that the emotion and affective response to music has been harnessed to “political movements.” Grossberg’s professional narrative also highlights some of the historical challenges of reorienting U.S. communication studies as a discipline and institution. Part of our interview touches on the difficulties and challenges he and others faced in introducing critical and cultural studies to the former Speech Communication Association out of which the National Communication Association (NCA) grew. And our interview discusses both the long road and the historical circumstances that intersected to create a Division of Communication & Critical/Cultural Studies in NCA at the very end of the twentieth century.

At roughly the tenth anniversary of the journal that bears the name of that NCA division (“CC/CS”), I have become the fourth editor of the journal. As I explain in the Introduction to my first issue as editor, I am interested in rethinking the history of the division’s and the journal’s formation on this anniversary in order to reflect on how the past continues to shape the questions that are posed under that banner in 2013–to make us a bit more self-reflexive about why we ask the questions that we ask in 2013. Grossberg has long been committed to a future of cultural studies that is not casual about or even particularly comfortable with its earlier ways of explaining earlier contexts and that restlessly invents new modes of interdisciplinary collaboration. However, perhaps because he has mellowed a bit in his older years (say it ain’t so!), he has become increasingly absorbed with proposing a cultural studies as “conversation” – an interdisciplinary conversation performed through new modes of collaborative (rather than individualized) research but also a conversation that sees the collaborative response to the present context as on-going, and not located solely in the academy. 

In part, my design of the first two issues of the tenth volume of CC/CS attempts to represent that spirit of conversationalism–a collection of interviews that, sometimes through anecdote and autobiography, ruminate about the past, present, and potential futures of cultural studies. My early idea for the issue had in mind only Hall, Eco, and Mattelart (all now in their early 80s), but I then expanded the menu of interviews to include a slightly younger generation (in their late 60s and 70s). At that point, I realized that the conversation needed to involve an even younger generation and that a journal representing “new directions” in critical studies and cultural studies from communication studies should place front and center the inter-generational conversation on which “new directions” in research are predicated. So please look forward to the second issue, with contributions from younger scholars whose perspectives are rethinking the old questions and turning the conversation in new directions. 

Brief bio for Lawrence Grossberg 

Lawrence Grossberg (Ph.D., University of Illinois, 1976) is the Morris Davis Distinguished Professor of Communication Studies and Cultural Studies, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He has authored or co-authored 8 books, edited or co-edited another 12, and published over 150 essays. His books and essays have been translated into over a dozen languages, and he has lectured widely all over the world. He has won numerous awards from the National Communication Association, the International Communication Association and the University of North Carolina, for scholarship, teaching and mentorship. One of the founders of cultural studies in the U.S., he is recognized internationally as a leading figure in cultural studies and cultural theory. His research has focused on a range of topics, including American popular music and youth culture, the changing conditions of children in the U.S. in the context of the rise of the new forms of conservatism and capitalism, countercultures, value theory, and ways of being modern. His latest book is Cultural Studies in the Future Tense. 

About the author (s)

James Hay

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Director of Graduate Studies