Readers' Forum Introduction: Popular Culture and the Culture of Research Funding
Rak, Julie, English Studies in Canada
THIS READER'S FORUM GOT ITS START because of an article written by Robert Fulford for the National Post on 13 October 2007 about SSHRC (The Social Science and Humanities Research Council) and the work of Dr Jes Battis. The article, "Lex Luthor Hearts Superman: Your Tax Dollars at Work," takes SSHRC to task for not revealing much about its research proposals, then moves on to mock Dr Battis for doing research on popular culture and queer issues, and ends by criticizing Dr Battis's success at earning grants. Fulford even supplies the fact that Dr Battis wrote about soy milk and corn muffins on his blog as some kind of evidence that he is not a good scholar.
It is easy to be annoyed by Fulford's predictable attack on SSHRC (what a waste of tax dollars!) and to be disturbed by his extended attack on Jes Battis as a person and as a scholar (cornbread! muffins! piercings! queer stuff!). It's more puzzling to see him get upset about research on popular culture--and in its parent discipline, cultural studies--if only because one of his recent books, The Triumph of Narrative: Storytelling in the Age of Mass Culture (1999) discusses popular culture at length, including the films of D. W. Griffiths, the culture of gossip, and Jack Nicholson, among other topics. Clearly, it's not the objects of popular culture which have attracted Fulford's ire since he writes about these himself, but popular culture research influenced by the politics of cultural studies, which aims to critique the conservative values Fulford holds dear.
Fulford chooses to cloak that discussion of politics in contempt for the subject matter, and that's where things get really interesting. Fulford's strategy of expressing contempt for serious studies of popular culture on the one hand while writing about popular culture seriously on the other isn't so different from the position of popular culture in the humanities and social sciences today. Doing research and teaching on popular culture is seen in some academic quarters as a guilty pleasure, but it is not a pleasure which creates real research or substantial teaching, or which--until the recent creation of the cultural studies category for SSHRC Standard Research Grants--deserves funding. Fulford's hiding of ideology behind a contempt for everyday objects that he finds banal when he's not talking about them finds an uneasy parallel in the world of research and teaching, where emergence of popular culture as a field within cultural studies is accompanied by worries about its possible banality, its threat to "serious" fields, even the fact that popular culture is, well, popular with students and the general public too. And anything popular cant be all that educational, can it?
It isn't only Fulford who gets exercised at the thought of articles about Buff, the Vampire Slayer: The general response to the Oprah Winfrey Show and Oprah's Book Club in the popular press is equally dismissive and hostile about Oprah Winfrey's choice of books (even when they are classically literary) and about the way readers in Oprah's Book Club choose to read and interpret. Recent scholarship on Oprah's Book Club is creating a more complex idea of what it is to be a participant on the show and what the selections themselves can mean. …