Donald K. Hedrick
It requires little autocritique to unearth the social contradictions of academic left cultural criticism. A relatively unacknowledged one is the aim, on the one hand, to democratize education while, on the other hand, to participate in the process of social stratification through a credentialization separating the future cultural footsoldiers from the academostars. 1
There are, of course, contradictions and contradictions. A particular one involving these same, future cultural workers may be more acutely felt by them now. Since graduate students presumably publish less, the contradiction is less visible even to a politically self-conscious field like cultural studies, but we see it surface in an occasional voice, such as that of Elayne Tobin in a recent essay about listening to depressing departmental coffee talk about new films. In the present essay I want to talk about Kenneth Branagh's Henry V in part responding to the issue she raises from her perspective about current cultural critique. While there is no contractual obligation for any of us to provide our students practical political hope along with critical competency, we must try to be of assistance.
Tobin finds in such talk a continually assumed stance of being “gatekeepers to positive representation, ” and finds the de-illusioning papers delivered at film and Marxist conferences always to reflect an “exposing” of the same bad faith everywhere, as if we were really to expect Hollywood to represent our agendas. Her disillusionment with de-illusioning boils to a brief parody of instructions for graduate students writing about film: (1) use (preferably big European) critic A to read (preferably popular) film B; (2) expose its bad faith and Hollywood commodification; (3) along the way gesture about how meaning is unfixed; and (4) indicate that more work is to be done. Although careful not to be critically naive, Tobin seems to wish for a more optimistic practice that instead of revealing the always already commodified status of a film might rather “imagine the importance of the film's larger political functions” (Tobin 1995:72-3). If such an optimistic wish seems merely like a narrative wish for a happy ending, one