Remarks to Caucus on Class
SCMS Chicago 2016
by Chuck Kleinhans
I’m sorry I can’t be present in person at the Caucus meeting. My brother was hospitalized a few days ago and I had to leave Atlanta yesterday to be with him in Urbana Illinois. I was asked to make some remarks to the group to help boost our spirits and our caucus within SCMS. Certainly the present moment in the US is a remarkable one for thinking about class and acting with a class aware politics. We actually have a Presidential campaign in which the words “democratic socialism” are openly spoken. We have a general awareness in the population of what decades of income inequality mean today, ranging from intellectuals who read Piketty to working people who have seen their incomes stagnate or decline while the super-rich grow in wealth and power. This is a great time to talk about class!
I have three general observations that I hope will help us think about what we can do.
One is based in the history of the Caucus on Class. I would remind us old timers, and inform the newer members, that the Caucus originally came out of concentrated efforts in the 1980s to present programs at the annual meetings on “race and class.” Most of the participants would also call themselves feminist, and most of the emphasis was on teaching, especially at schools including community colleges where race and class were close to the student body. So, in a significant way the Caucus dealt with “intersectionality” before that became a known term. As SCMS grew, more caucus and interest groups proliferated, and a newly formed Black caucus addressed race particularly, followed by a Latino caucus, and so forth. For a while all the caucuses were scheduled for the exact same meeting time so people had to choose which one was most important to them.
The Caucus on Class did continue in the 1990s, but at a certain point became mired in what I remember as a mindless sectarianism as a small group tried to force its views and programs on everyone else using bully tactics. After that group departed, the Caucus continued on but did not reach its full potential.
Therefore my first observation has to end with an appeal for people to rise above sectarianism and squabbling. SCMS is not a significant battle front in the present time. It is a somewhat useful professional organization that can be a staging area for connecting different people, encouraging those who want to do class analysis. Let’s use it for that. We have our own and other political positions such as Black Lives Matter, or Boycott, Divest, and Sanction that are better served locally and on our own campuses, not with trying to pass sweeping resolutions. Let’s use our energy wisely and efficiently.
Second, I would point out that we need a large scale class analysis of media. In the past few decades there has been a welcome convergence for many of what was often divided: I mean a political economy analysis and a critical cultural analysis. Divided in the past by departments, methodologies, and often objects of study, today we see the fusion of industrial economic studies with sophisticated critical textual analysis. John Caldwell’s Production Cultures book is just one example of many such works. And I would also point out that SCMS itself is today a much more international organization. U.S. people, in particular, need to be aware that class analysis has been going on as a regular part of media studies around the world. And to read it and learn from it.
A related point: to consider class means to study the relationship of all classes. There’s often been in the past, especially in the U.S., an understandable veering toward class analysis that takes the industrial working class as the norm. Of course, this connects with the powerful work that has been done within Marxism in discussing class. But I’d remind everyone that while Marx used a large scale analysis of class in the first two books of Capital, it is only at the end of volume III where he begins to discuss the complexities of the major divisions and the “in-betweens” and after two or three pages, the manuscript ended. Therefore anyone who wants to do serious class analysis needs to also study the work of sociologists, historians, political scientists, and economists. We need a rich discussion in which many participate to understand this evolving and flexible system of capitalism. And that absolutely includes understanding intersectionality and how in a practical sense for many people “identity politics” are a more immediate and important aspect of their own oppression within the system.
Finally, let me point out that increasing class antagonism and separation operates within the profession of media studies, and within our own campus environments. This an especially urgent issue for graduate students and contingent faculty. This is a vital issue for our students who are trying to deal with constantly rising tuition and loans. The Caucus on Class cannot solve those matters, and I don’t see much point in just passing some resolutions. Those issues are best engaged with groups that are already formed and in action: unions, coordinating groups for contingent faculty, student organizing on the local campus and city and state politics level, and so forth. We can be stronger and more effective by joining with others, by having an activist way of thinking, and keeping each other informed about all these possibilities.
I understand Chris Robé and others have been working on having an In Focus proposal for Cinema Journal. Excellent idea. And let me remind everyone that JUMP CUT always welcomes analyses of class issues in media. So, here’s a toast to the future of Caucus: let’s be energized by meeting each other and spreading the word, and work.