by Lawrence Grossberg
3rd January 2020

Lawrence Grossberg is an American scholar widely known for his research in the philosophy of communication and culture, and a contributor to John Clarke’s book Critical Dialogues: Thinking Together in Turbulent Times. Here he looks at the role of conversation in cultural studies.

I believe that the project of cultural studies is, at its heart, a pedagogical one, a pedagogy characterized by three aspects.[1] First, it is a pedagogy of the conversation built upon the ever-present possibility of being wrong and the reality that conversations will change everyone involved. It is not merely the liberal conversation of pluralism (teaching the debates) or the postmodern conversation of sheer multiplicities.[2]  It is not a dialogic call and response, nor a call for a return to rational deliberation or civility or persuasion, or consensus, or dialectical synthesis. It is an dissensual, agonistic but convivial struggle to forge “partial connections, to articulate differences into fluid “unities-in-difference.”

In such conversations, all voices have a right to be heard, and every contribution has to be received as a gift, but not all voices are equal or have equal authority; the conversation must take account of the real inequalities, some reasonable and many unreasonable, of knowledge, experience and feeling. But no voice is guaranteed assent or leadership. Such judgments have to be a self-reflective part of the conversation itself.

The point of the conversation is not victory but moving the conversation forward, intellectually and strategically. The point of the conversation is to find a livable and useful order in the chaos, to find an organization of the multiplicities that is both possible and better (according to some epistemic and political values, which again are embedded within the conversation). Cultural studies believes that conversations can move people, hopefully toward better – albeit always contextual – truths and possibilities. Of course, failure is always an option – especially these days – but it becomes almost a foregone conclusion if we enter the conversation with the certainty of our own truths and values.[3] Certainty is what ends the very possibility of conversation. Certainty arises from simply affirming what we already know, what seems obvious to us, what we take for granted – whether epistemically, politically or even morally. Certainty makes it almost impossible, offering no incentives—reinforced in the contemporary political and intellectual cultures – to admit that one might be wrong and to change one’s position.

Second, consequently, cultural studies’ pedagogy rejects any absolutism, the result of the articulation of certainty and simplicity. Cultural studies recognizes the necessary and specific complexity of determinations, contradictions and agencies that define any context, as well as the possibilities of seeking collective strategies for making the future. The conversation that cultural studies calls for is never limited to any pre-approved set of voices. It is a conversation defined by a logic of yes…but, where the “ellipsis/but” is not operating in the register of correction or the accusation of evil, complicity or necessary failure. It is not an act of exclusion or refusal. Instead, it is an affirmation, an invitation: yes …and … give me more. It is always about the complexities, the contradictions, the contingencies, the multiplicities, the relations among the many agents and agencies, among the many operations of power, the constructions of unities and differences, the competing possibilities of both order and change.

Third, there is a distinctive voice of such conversation: a voice predicated on uncertainty, humility, generosity and if possible, even a bit of humor (yes, even in the face of despair and monstrosity). But most importantly, it is a voice that recognizes that the task of such a conversation—its greatest contribution–is to enable us to go on thinking, not to settle for some new Absolute, some new Truth. It is a voice that embraces its own necessary incompleteness. It is a conversation imbued with passion, but a passion always tempered by the call to know better.

Stuart Hall “put it this way…you have to be sure enough about a position in order to teach a class, but you have to be open-ended enough to know that you are going to change your mind by the time you teach it next week. As a strategy that means holding enough ground to be able to think a position out but always putting it in a way which has a horizon toward open-ended theorization.”[4] John Trudell, a poet and leader of the American Indian Movement, expresses it somewhat differently, talking about the difference between believing and thinking. “You can’t do both. Either we’re going to believe or we’re going to think, and the difference is …when … we’re thinking, energy is flowing, it’s going where it goes, it’s flowing. When we believe, we’ve taken that flowing energy and put it into the box that is limited by the definitions of the belief. So here’s energy that should be going and finding its way into the universe so that we can create solutions, being put into the box of belief, and then every solution we attempt to come up with is limited by the box of belief.”[5]

The conversation of cultural studies always attempts to convert believing into thinking. Cultural studies offers a voice, a voice courageous enough to speak against the tide, not only of the forces of inhumanity but also against those forces seeking—but often failing–to challenge them and redirect the tides of history. But this means, among other things, that we must know these histories, understanding what is old and what is new, understanding where there are both intellectual and political insights, and where we face failures and dead-ends. It seeks a voice passionate enough to defend itself against the taken for granted certainties of both sides, but humble enough to accept that it may be wrong—and always incomplete–and that, at the very least, it will need to change as it responds to the vicissitudes of the conversation itself and of the changing world in which it lives and which it seeks to reconfigure. This is cultural studies’ pedagogical voice—whether engaged in public debate about political strategy or trying to reach students in a classroom.


Listen to the original conversation between John Clarke and Lawrence Grossberg, as featured in Critical Dialogues, about the dynamics of thinking critically in the social sciences, on Soundcloud.


Lawrence Grossberg is a contributor to Critical Dialogues, which is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £19.99.

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[1] For an elaboration of this brief piece, see my “What did you learn in school today?” In Cultural Studies in the Classroom and Beyond. Eds.  Jaafar Aksikas, Sean Johnson Andrews, and Donald Hedrick. Palgrave, 2019.

[2] I do not intend to re-assert the accusations made against “the left” of illiberalism, brainwashing and the denial of freedom of speech.

[3] Stories can always fail; they may fail because the pieces do not come together, or because they end with either a bang or a whimper.

[4] Cited in David Scott, Stuart Hall’s Voice. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

[5] John Trudell, “I’m crazy?”  U.S. Social Forum 6-24-2010.