Roads in/of American Culture
as Avenues of Cultural Studies

This is a postcard a fellow roadie sent me about two years ago. “Culture is everything you don't have to do." – Brian Eno. Playful and deceptive, in fact a disclaimer, the trifle gains a little weight when considering what is excluded. What is it that we have to do, apart from, well, die and, a stale American joke would contend, pay taxes up to that point. Everything else would to all appearances qualify to be subsumed under "culture."

Brian Eno’s quip is downright nonsense when measured against concepts of culture entertained by, say, Matthew Arnold or T.S. Eliot. It becomes subversive, however, when regarded in contexts developed more recently—contexts which position, as culture’s twin and other, not nature but ideology, from which culture is distinguished uneasily, for the two are inextricably intertwined.

What is it, in the twilight of culture and ideology, that we have to do and don’t have to do? That is a question, or rather a whole set of pertinent questions.

"Something is left out when one says ‘ideology’ and something is not present when one says ‘culture.’" Stuart Hall ("Paradigms" 23) addresses the intricate interrelations of culture and ideology; for him, the conceptual space in which those interrelations are located is politics. For us, those conceptualizations of culture and ideology are valuable as points of departure from which our studies can get under way.

Recent approaches to the study of culture go beyond restrictive traditionalist conceptions which view culture as the process of aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual development or, even more narrowly, as an assembly of Grecian Urns, objects of aesthetic excellence, high art only. They encompass also an anthropological and a social component, following Raymond Williams’s definition of culture as "a description of a particular way of life" (Williams 57). Williams’s position is important for us in more than one respect. First, it has the study of popular culture, the "lived culture of ordinary men and women" (Storey, Introduction 71), come into focus of analysis. Second, it assigns to cultural analysis the task of clarifying "the meanings and values implicit and explicit [...] in a particular culture" (Williams 57). And, finally, Williams’s ways of rethinking culture—and he may well be the "most important single influence" (Bennett 25)—have generally been "instrumental in the rise of a number of new interdisciplinary approaches to the study of the social and ideological effects of culture" (Childers and Hentzi 67).

Self-proclaimed heir to Raymond Williams’s groundbreaking work, cultural studies has built upon such broadened and politically inflected concepts of culture. Culture is no longer defined in "isolation from the rest of social life"—that premise "distinguishes cultural studies from other enterprises . . . . Continually engaging with the political, economic, erotic, social, and ideological, cultural studies entails the study of all the relations between all the elements in a whole way of life" (Grossberg, Nelson, Treichler 14). Having acquired a certain "elasticity of usage," the term ‘cultural studies,’ according to Tony Bennett, "now functions largely as a term of convenience for a fairly dispersed array of theoretical and political positions" and "comprises less a specific theoretical and political tradition or discipline than a gravitational field in which a number of intellectual traditions have found a provisional rendez-vous." These traditions, "however widely divergent they might be in other respects, share a commitment to examining cultural practices from the point of view of their intrication with, and within, relations of power …. The only matter of substance at issue [in cultural studies] concerns the development of ways of theorizing the relations between culture and power that will be of service to practical engagements with, and within, those relations" (Bennett 23, 33).

Cultural studies generates meaning by analyzing socially significant modes of perception, cognition, and representation in their comprehensive efficaciousness. Relying on fundamentally inconclusive acts of signification, cultural studies pays special attention to the media, for the media both produce and distribute the cultural semantics of societies (cf. Böhme 16). Important in this respect is culture’s aspect of textuality. Structuralist and poststructuralist theories have been influential as they regard culture as "signifying practices" (Storey, Introduction 2). Stuart Hall acknowledges the impact of such theorizing when he refers to the "linguistic turn" experienced by British Cultural Studies: the "discovery of discursivity, of textuality," and connected to it, the need "to think questions of culture through the metaphors of language and textuality" ("Cultural Studies" 283).

In this light, culture can be regarded as a symbolic or textual relatedness, a textuary universe in which single cultural moments reveal themselves as texts only through their contexts, or rather an abundance of contexts (cf. Böhme 15). Lawrence Grossberg has commented on the nexus between the concepts of culture as text and of culture being grounded in the political and ideological.

The meaning of a text is not given in some independently available set of codes which we can consult at our own convenience. A text does not carry its own meaning or politics already inside of itself; no text is able to guarantee what its effects will be. People are constantly struggling, not merely to figure out what a texts means, but to make it mean something that connects to their own lives, experiences, needs, and desires. The same text will mean different things to different people, depending how it is interpreted. And different people have different interpretive resources, just as they have different needs. A text can only mean something in the context of the experience and situation of its particular audience. Equally important, texts do not define ahead of time how they are to be used or what functions they can serve. They can have different uses for different people in different contexts ... How a specific text is used, how it is interpreted, how it functions for its audiences—all of these are inseparably connected through the audience’s constant struggle to make sense of itself and its world, even more, to make a slightly better place for itself in the world. (qtd. in Storey, Cultural Studies 6-7)

In such a view, "Culture is the struggle over meaning, a struggle that takes place over and within the sign" (Grossberg, History 157); at once a "terrain of conflict and contestation" (Storey, Cultural Studies 2), culture is closely tied to ideology. The struggle over meaning is ideological because it is the struggle over what is "obvious" or "natural." Following a line of theorizing on ideology which goes back to reconfigurations of classic Marxist definitions provided by Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser, ideology can be seen as "the indispensable [set of] practice[s] ... through which individuals ... are worked into a particular ‘lived relation’ to a sociohistorical project" (Kavanagh 319), and, importantly, in which these lived relations and, consequently, the subjects’ positions thus established in the particular social formations are naturalized. Ideology "offers the social subject not a set of narrowly ‘political ideas’ but a fundamental framework of assumptions that defines the parameters of the real and the self" (Kavanagh 310). It naturalizes as well as "pre-scribes" societal order.

Austrians are well aware of this prescriptive element in ideology: "Vuaschrift is Vuaschrift"  and its three corollaries, “Das hamma imma schon so g’habt. Das hamma noch nie so g’habt. Und da könnt ja jeder kommen.”  

The overlap of ideology and culture can again be thought through the linguistic and, more specifically, textual metaphor. Grossberg maintains that ideology, although not equivalent to language, "is articulated (constructed) in and through language" (Grossberg, "History" 158). Like culture, it can be regarded as a system of representations (cf. Childers and Hentzi 146). James Kavanagh explains that "ideology is less tenacious as a ‘set of ideas’ than as a system of representations, perceptions, and images that precisely encourages men and women to ‘see’ their specific place in a historically peculiar social formation as inevitable, natural, a necessary function of the ‘real’ itself" (Kavanagh 310). According to this definition, "literary and cultural texts of all kinds constitute a society’s ideological practice" (Kavanagh 319). Culture, then, is the site on and through which ideology reinscribes society’s fragmentation—its historically specific differences of race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality, class, and the like. Culture transmits and distributes, produces and reproduces ideology. It is the site where ideology arises, is mediated, and becomes manifest. Stuart Hall addresses this particular role of culture when he regards it as being engaged in "the politics of signification," in an attempt to "win readers to particular ways of seeing the world," and thus as a site where "collective social understandings are created" (Storey, Introduction 5).

How, exactly, and in which ways are cultural texts and practices ideological? How do they construct relations of—and their own relations to—ideology, power and politics, gender/sex, race, and class? Are cultural texts "used to reaffirm or challenge the prevailing sense of self and social order?" (Kavanagh 318) Asking questions of this kind, cultural studies is committed to viewing society as fragmented, organized around the differential relations of class, race and ethnicity, gender and sex. To theorize these differences within a cultural studies framework means to acknowledge what Stuart Hall has referred to as "theoretical work as interruption," i.e. theorizing that was originally carried on outside of cultural studies and that was then incorporated into, or has "interrupted," the "so-called unfolding of cultural studies"—the questions asked by and the insights of feminism on the one hand and theorizing with regard to the issue of race on the other (cf. Hall, "Cultural Studies" 282). Incorporating in cultural studies and making one of its agenda matters of gender/sex, race/ethnicity, and class were "ruptural" events (ibid.), "decisive turn[s]" (283), in cultural studies’ theoretical and intellectual work. Their extensive impact on cultural studies’ theoretical and practical trajectories cannot be ignored, much less undone.

An Americanist doing cultural studies is privileged by his choice of field, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in Democracy in America.

America is the only country in which it has been possible to witness the natural and tranquil flow of society, and where the influence exercised on the future condition of states by their origin is clearly distinguishable.
. . . America, consequently, exhibits in the broad light of day the phenomena which the ignorance or rudeness of earlier ages conceals from our researches. The men of our days . . . are close enough to the founding of the American settlements to know in detail their elements, and far enough away from that time already to be able to judge what these beginnings have produced. (1: 28-29)

With Tocqueville, we are back in that twilight zone of culture and ideology, for the enlightened conservative French aristocrat is outspoken about his prejudices. He is right, of course, in that the field is historically limited—though that assumption in itself poses a set of new questions, as became evident in several contributions to the website. One contributor looked at the building of the transcontinental railroads and came to highlight the ruthlessness of business exploits and the dispossession of native Americans. Another, a guest lecture by our American collaborator, Professor Tim Conley, "‘Surmounting every Barrier’ yet ‘Trampling on People’: Real Roads, Rail Roads, and Visions of the West," focused on the odd ways in which many of the leading American writers of the 19th century seem to have pro-visioned the conquest of the west. A third concentrated on the brief and bloody episode of the Bozeman Trail. The planning and maintenance of the Bozeman Trail leading from Fort Laramie to Virginia City, Montana, is particularly noteworthy. Ostensibly established as an easy route for settlers to travel even in winter, it was first of all a supply route for the military; in fact, it was closed to civilians for three-fourths of the five years it was kept up, and it traversed tribal lands in utter violation of existing trails and treaties.

Tocqueville comes in handy also because his remark may be taken to affirm notions of U.S. American exceptionalism. We take occasion to disapprove of modes of thought which claim infallibility and an undeniable home in "God’s own country." Back in 1929, Egon Erwin Kisch was on the mark when in his travel book Paradies Amerika he spoke of "not the country of unlimited possibilities but the country of impossible limitations."

If we use the first-person plural personal pronoun excessively in this presentation, we do not mean it to be what is customarily referred to as "coercive we," but simply to express that the joint authors share certain ideas and assumptions with regard to culture and cultural studies. There is, of course, still a bias—which we hoped to reduce by collating our ideas in a dialogue and trying to avoid monologic strictures. Similarly, when we define our own work as that of Americanists doing cultural studies rather than, simply, work in American studies, we do so because we want to avoid national trappings. For American Studies is in general practice short for U.S. American studies, whose numerous practitioners have often succumbed all too willingly to ideological limitations about natio.

Why roads? Why have we chosen an outdated mode of travel, an anachronistic remnant of mankind’s belief in civilization and boundless progress, a timeworn symbol of a questionable freedom as the focus of our attention? Our project has not been guided by feelings of nostalgia (only, that is, though sometimes we are not quite sure about that). We believe that in the U.S., especially in our century, the road has been a concept so powerfully present in public perception (in cultural memory, in the collective cultural experience—you name it) that its importance can hardly be overestimated. From folk ballads and travel blues standards to the road hymns and commercial block-busters of rock superstars; from 18th century travel accounts by little-known writers to Sal’s and Dean’s restless crossing and recrossing of the continent in Kerouac’s road epic; and from Fonda’s, Hopper’s, and Nicholson’s famous search for the America of the 1970s to Thelma’s and Louise’s female bonding. In music, in literature, and in film, conceptualizations of "the road" have served so many purposes and have been put to so many uses and abuses that a backward glance upon the places that have been traveled and the things that have been passed by, picked up, or abandoned along the way has appeared to us as an idea as good as any.

this is why roads
GO TO slideshow medley on the road
see and hear

Road and roadsides, (over-)loaded with Americana, are privileged sites for negotiating differences, social, racial, ethnical, sexual or otherwise. The diversity suggested by the slide show is mirrored in the variety of topics and approaches taken up by the participants of the course. We will let you have a few glances at some of what we think remarkable work done. Issues of gender are central to the discussion of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues; Gus Van Sant’s 1994 film adaptation of Tom Robbins’ novel of the same title is really an elaboration on a male fantasy of a female fantasy of a male fantasy about a woman hitchhiker and the tale that ensues. Gender and sexuality are also at the core of "Queer Roads," which in separate chapters looks at, among others, "Homosexuality in Hollywood," Gus Van Sant and his celebrated My Own Private Idaho. In another vein, nostalgia and adolescent dreams in a small town at a time when the U.S. supposedly had not yet lost its innocence in the Vietnam War are at the core of a sizable site on George Lucas’ American Graffiti. Another noteworthy contribution examined Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that mad post-sixties specimen of the American dream gone haywire, the road novel at its terminus. Vastly different, the contribution entitled “From the Streets of Dallas” looked at Oliver Stone’s film JFK and investigated how the movie makes the viewer create the meaning for him- or herself. Finally, there was a presentation which focused on Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and the term “Chautauqua,” which in Pirsig’s book is used instead of “chapter” or, perhaps in this case more adequate, “disquisition.”

The contributions mentioned so far would suggest that the course ran off into all sorts of odd directions and lacked coherence. We were aware of that danger; to avoid it, we planned that about half of the presentations were to focus on Route 66 and the area of the 1930s dust bowl. Starting out with a brief survey in cultural geography about the lands traversed by that road, we then viewed John Ford’s film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. Subsequently, we took up Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Tom Joad” and inquired into popular music and the question of artistic authenticity, which was carried on to the role assigned to Guthrie by Bob Dylan (“Song to Woody” is one of his finest early pieces) and by Bruce Springsteen (“The Ghost of Tom Joad”—but more on him later). When other students discussed Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde (you know, Warren Beattie and Faye Dunaway) and Peter Bogdanovich’s film version of Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show, we were surprised by an abundance of cross-references. The various contexts were informing each other, and us, in reading and trying to comprehend them.

By the mid-1980s, esp. after the huge commercial success of his album Born in the U.S.A., Bruce Springsteen had come to be perceived by many as an all-American symbol. What this symbol stood for exactly, however, was not quite clear. Was Springsteen obviously reaffirming or challenging Reagan's version of the American Dream? Did Springsteen and his songs present America as "a land of opportunity for everyone, or [as] a land of broken hopes for too many?" (Kavanagh 319).

The ambivalence inherent in the deeply American symbolism of roads and highways used by Springsteen was profoundly influential in shaping the diverging ways in which audiences read the singer and his work. Roads are omnipresent in Bruce Springsteen's music. Reccurrent throughout Springsteen’s career as his favorite "subjects, settings, and symbols" (Cullen 115), roads, cars, and driving have been put to different uses and employed to sometimes opposing ends. For the youthful characters of early songs such as "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run," the road is a site of romance and rebellion, the possibility of escape from small-town America. Linked to discourses rooted in the popular culture of 1950s rock ’n’ roll and Hollywood—Marlon Brando and his motorcycle gang come to mind, as well as the rebellious pose of James Dean, to name but two examples—the road of the early Springsteen predominantly signifies freedom. In his search for a place that "all those people" who he had "put in all those cars" were "born to go to," as Springsteen would describe the gist of his ensuing work, he discovered the road as a site on which to articulate not teenage rebellion but social critique. In a verse he added when he sang Woody Guthrie’s classic "I Ain´t Got No Home," Springsteen had the protagonist declare, "I’m stranded on this road that goes from sea to sea / hundred thousand others are stranded here with me." The road, and by implication America, has turned out to be a dead end, a nightmare even. Throughout his career, in albums as different as Born in the U.S.A. and The Ghost of Tom Joad, Springsteen has retained this strategic plurality of significations of the road.

The answers, then, different audiences in the mid-1980s gave to questions concerning Springsteen’s complicity in or rejection of uncritical patriotism were, and needed to be, different. "Bruce Springsteen" had come to be a highly ambivalent sign, lending itself to multifaceted, even contradictory readings. In an interview given in 1986, Stuart Hall (Grossberg, "Postmodernism" 138) summed up the situation. He compared Bruce Springsteen to other mass phenomena of the 1980s such as Live Aid, Farm Aid, or even MTV, suggesting specific postmodern characteristics as their common denominator: they are, says Hall, "precisely, massively defined by their diversity, their contradictory plurality" (ibid.). Springsteen, according to Hall, is a typical example, "a phenomenon that can be read, with equal conviction, in at least two diametrically opposed ways" (ibid.). Hall’s contention that the symbols used in Springsteen’s work—such as the road—are "deeply American—populist in their ambiguity" (ibid.) can be extended to include the symbol "Bruce Springsteen" itself: It is "Bruce Springsteen" who is "in the White House" as well as "On the Road." "In the 1960s," Hall concludes, "you had to be one or the other. Springsteen is somehow both at the same time" (ibid.).

Why the Internet? First, because the internet is by all means the most important new cultural avenue. "Roads in/of American Culture" is not an isolated project. A large collection of more ambitious undertakings can be accessed via the ASA-homepage. (Appropriately, the American Studies Association website is called "Crossroads.")

Besides, we have never been particularly ardent devotees of the written word—of the written word only, that is. We believe that the presentation of images and sounds can be an equally effective means of comment and critique; and for incorporating text, images, and sounds in one and the same document, the Internet with its peculiar hypertext format is a unique tool particularly useful for a project concerned with, among others, literature, film, and music. At the same time, we believe that hypertext allows for new forms of cultural criticism. It may be doubtful whether we can altogether depart from the beaten track of the traditional critical essay, its narrative linearity and monologic closures. That may be wishful thinking, a result of celebratory theorizing. We aim at virtually three-dimensional multimedia narratives which foreground the role of the reader and open up rather than close meaning. We may quite possibly ask more questions than we can answer, but by employing these fascinating possibilities, we abandon traditional teacher-pupil relations and turn our backs on didacticism and notions of frontal lecturing. We are all students of culture, and we wish to create an environment that encourages critical exploration on an equal and worldwide basis.

Where this project will eventually lead us cannot be properly assessed, for we can still do no more than guess the technical and cultural potential of this new medium. Clearly, the world wide web is here to stay. Since the teaching and learning about participation and practice in the production of media output has become a chief function of cultural studies, the goal of an informed and critical media literacy must be extended to include the internet and its possibilities.

Critical media literacy also includes an awareness of the internet’s particular ideological embedding. It means eyeing with suspicion the medium’s aggressive capacity for transnational, even global, hegemony. It means asking questions such as — What has ‘the internet’ come to signify in a variety of discourses? What is its relation to other cultural practices? To the political and to the economic? What are its possible social effects? — Those questions and the answers they would require call for a few additional semesters of intensive work in cultural studies, to say the least.

kh kam.

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Presented at

Austrian Association of University Teachers of English (AAUTE)
Annual Conference, May 5/6, 2000, Salzburg