American Culture Studies Ph.D. Dissertations


Beyond Celebration: A Call for Rethinking Cultural Studies

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Culture Studies/Communication

First Advisor

Ellen Berry


This is a polemical dissertation which seeks to serve as an intervention into the theoretical debates and tensions within cultural studies. These debates, which have taken place over the last few decades, have centered on the populist bent within cultural studies, the turn away from the concerns of political economy, and the influence of French theories that emphasize signification, play, and relativism. At stake in these debates is our way of understanding the world and imagining it differently. I argue that the celebratory direction found in much of the work by cultural studies scholars in which resistance, subversion and transgression are located in all things popular has led to an expressivist politics which lacks explanatory power and is symptomatic of a loss of political will. This dissertation critiques three particular directions that exemplify the celebratory turn: claims regarding transgression; claims regarding audience activity; and celebratory accounts of consumption. Chapter one provides an exposition of the debates that have plagued cultural studies, laying the ground for later arguments. Chapter two provides an introduction to reality television which is enlisted as a cultural symptom through which to interrogate weaknesses in theoretical positions (in chapters three through five) adopted by cultural studies scholars and strengths in alternative theoretical legacies. Chapter three turns toward the concept of transgression, arguing the romantic view of transgression as subversion relies on a partial reading of the work of figures such as Bakhtin. Chapter four focuses upon a critique of the limitations of conceptions of the active audience, arguing that the political economy of the Frankfurt School theorists can serve as a corrective to perspectives that divorce production from consumption. Chapter five then examines the promotion of consumption as resistance, construing individual self-fashioning as a politics. Such an expressivist politics ignores broad structural change in favor of changing the self. Finally, I conclude that there has been a failure of imagination within cultural studies scholarship. I propose that a return to devalued theoretical legacies, such as the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, can provide a vantage point for rethinking cultural studies.