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The professor of “Taylor Swift and Her World,” Stephanie Burt, has already addressed some predictable criticisms in an article for The Atlantic subtitled “Why the pop superstar’s work is worthy of study.” Burt’s essay might be read as a rejoinder to a question she was asked in an interview with The New York Times: “What would you say to people who might criticize such a subject as unserious or not worthy of rigorous study?”
I am one of those people. My own response on reading about Burt’s course was to tear at my powdered wig and bemoan that Harvard students will graduate having learned more about Taylor Swift than Jonathan Swift. But that tragedy will probably be met with a shrug even within most English departments. The days are long since past when those departments studied only literature, whatever “literature” means. The horse of cultural studies has bolted the barn, and there is no closing the stable door now.
In defending her course, Burt distinguishes herself from those “who think that college English classes should focus on classics, on works that have stood the test of time.” She asks, rhetorically, “how much time? whose test? what kinds of works?” Those are important questions, but — like most rhetorical questions — their rhetorical force should not simply be conceded. In the modern humanities, those questions have usually been marshaled against a narrow and restrictive notion of the canon, in order to point out that this canon has been installed by the dominant or hegemonic culture. The argument seeks the inclusion of more marginal, resistant, or emergent positions. What is being smuggled into Burt’s questions is the implication that Taylor Swift is any of those things. In fact, she is the dominant culture itself. Nothing could be more hegemonic.
It is unthinkable, and not even desirable, to turn back the clock to a time, perhaps mythical, when literature departments studied only literature. Contemporary literary studies has been deeply shaped by scholars, like Lauren Berlant or Sianne Ngai, who attend to pop-cultural objects with immense seriousness, according the same intellectual scrutiny to the Hello Kitty toy or an episode of The Simpsons as to The Magic Mountain. The apogee (or nadir) of this approach is probably still Slavoj Žižek’s “reading” of the ideology of different models of toilet bowls.
The horse of cultural studies has bolted the barn, and there is no closing the stable door now.
Taylor Swift, to me, is at the level of the toilet bowl. By which I mean that she should by all means be studied, with the greatest rigor, as an epochal achievement of modernity. As Burt correctly observes, Taylor Swift is undeniably a cultural fact, and we should regard her the way a historian or an anthropologist would regard any fact. That reasoning is unimpeachable and incontestable. I would go even further and say that the scale and intensity of parasocial identification with Taylor Swift is probably an unprecedented psychological phenomenon. Such a study could take place even in a literature department, where one is accustomed to a mode of cultural analysis indebted to Roland Barthes’s Mythologies or Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia. (This year we even have a curious specimen of a mass-cultural product that attempts to do such analysis on itself, namely the Barbie movie.) I have no interest, then, in policing what objects other scholars can teach and research. Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let a hundred dissertations be written about Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
We will have to wait for the end of the term to see if the students all become Cather-pilled. Even if that does happen, however, should a college course really be set up as bait-and-switch? Or, worse, clickbait? If we are supposed to be imparting lessons in critical thinking, wouldn’t a good outcome be that students would catch on to such professorial tactics?
Those questions bring to mind a now somewhat notorious moment in a recent New Yorker article, titled “The End of the English Major,” when a professor at Harvard reported, “The last time I taught The Scarlet Letter, I discovered that my students were really struggling to understand the sentences as sentences — like, having trouble identifying the subject and the verb.” That sounds like a problem on several fronts. But one has to meet one’s students where they are. If students cannot understand a sentence, if they cannot identify subjects and verbs, that is what we have to teach them. That is valuable (if unglamorous) work. I don’t see how a class on Taylor Swift will particularly address the need to understand sentences as sentences, or to identify the subject and the verb. It looks instead like a concession. The students can’t read difficult texts, so we won’t ask them to. The students can’t read complicated sentences, so we won’t ask them to.
My own position is surely old-fashioned. Professors are not “fans” of what we study. In literary studies, the default position is something like the opposite: We are critics. There is assumed to be some minimal distance between the researcher and the object. Every other place besides the university is already saturated with the images and messages of the culture industry. It would be nice to have one area where those were not the overriding imperatives.
In the interview in The New York Times, Burt introduces a final justification for her course. “Literally everything that takes up a lot of time in a modern English department was at one point a low-prestige popular art form that you wouldn’t bother to study, like Shakespeare’s sonnets and, in particular, the rise of the novel.” This is either misleading or untrue. The category of cultural “prestige,” as applied either to pop music or to academic study in the 21st century, is incommensurable with the cultural world of Shakespeare or Richardson. There is just no way of making the translation of Shakespeare’s location in his culture into our world, as if to say that Taylor Swift (or anybody) is the Shakespeare of today. No more would we ask who was equivalent to Shakespeare at the time of Beowulf’s composition. It would, of course, be worth studying this question. How do modern forms of cultural prestige come into being? One can even imagine a class about it.