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Cultural studies is an academic field grounded in critical theory and literary criticism. Characteristically interdisciplinary, cultural studies provides a reflexive network of intellectuals attempting to situate the forces constructing our daily lives. It concerns the political dynamics of contemporary culture, as well as its historical foundations, conflicts, and defining traits. It is distinguished from cultural anthropology and ethnic studies in both objective and methodology. Researchers concentrate on how a particular medium or message relates to ideology, social class, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, and/or gender, rather than investigating a particular culture or area of the world.
Cultural studies approaches subjects holistically, combining feminist theory, social theory, political theory, history, philosophy, literary theory, media theory, film/video studies, communication studies, political economy, translation studies, museum studies and art history/criticism to study cultural phenomena in various societies. Thus, cultural studies seeks to understand the ways in which meaning is generated, disseminated, and produced through various practices, beliefs, institutions, and political, economic, or social structures within a given culture.
The term was coined by Richard Hoggart in 1964 when he founded the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies or CCC. It has since become strongly associated with Stuart Hall, who succeeded Hoggart as Director.
From the 1970s onward, Stuart Hall's pioneering work, along with his colleagues Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, Tony Jefferson, Michael Green and Angela McRobbie, created an international intellectual movement. Many cultural studies scholars employed Marxist methods of analysis, exploring the relationships between cultural forms (the superstructure) and that of the political economy (the base). By the 1970s, however, the politically formidable British working classes were in decline. Britain's manufacturing industries were fading and union rolls were shrinking. Yet, millions of working class Britons backed the rise of Margaret Thatcher. For Stuart Hall and other Marxist theorists, this shift in loyalty from the Labour Party to the Conservative Party was antithetical to the interests of the working class and had to be explained in terms of cultural politics.
In order to understand the changing political circumstances of class, politics, and culture in the United Kingdom, scholars at the CCCS turned to the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian thinker of the 1920s and 30s. Gramsci had been concerned with similar issues: why would Italian laborers and peasants vote for fascists? Why, in other words, would working people vote to give more control to corporations, and see their own rights and freedoms abrogated? Gramsci modified classical Marxism in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control. In this view, capitalists use not only brute force (police, prisons, repression, military) to maintain control, but also penetrate the everyday culture of working people. Thus, the key rubric for Gramsci and for cultural studies is that of cultural hegemony. Scott Lash writes,
In the work of Hall, Hebdige and McRobbie, popular culture came to the fore... What Gramsci gave to this was the importance of consent and culture. If the fundamental Marxists saw power in terms of class versus class, then Gramsci gave to us a question of class alliance. The rise of cultural studies itself was based on the decline of the prominence of fundamental class-versus-class politics.
Write Edgar and Sedgwick:
The theory of hegemony was of central importance to the development of British cultural studies [particularly the CCCS]. It facilitated analysis of the ways in which subordinate groups actively resist and respond to political and economic domination. The subordinate groups need not be seen merely as the passive dupes of the dominant class and its ideology.
This line of thinking opened up fruitful work exploring agency, a theoretical outlook which reinserted the active, critical capacities of all people. Notions of agency have supplanted much scholarly emphasis on groups of people (e.g. the working class, primitives, colonized peoples, women) whose political consciousness and scope of action was generally limited to their position within certain economic and political structures. In other words, many economists, sociologists, political scientists, and historians have traditionally deprived everyday people of a role in shaping their world or outlook, although anthropologists since the 1960s have foregrounded the power of agents to contest structure, first in the work of transactionalists like Fredrik Barth, and then in works inspired by resistance theory and post-colonial theory.
At times, cultural studies' romance with agency nearly excluded the possibility of oppression, overlooks the fact that the subaltern have their own politics, and romanticizes agency, overblowing its potentiality and pervasiveness. In work of this kind, popular in the 1990s, many cultural studies scholars discovered in consumers ways of creatively using and subverting commodities and dominant ideologies. This orientation has come under fire for a variety of reasons.
Cultural studies concerns itself with the meaning and practices of everyday life. Cultural practices comprise the ways people do particular things (such as watching television, or eating out) in a given culture. In any given practice, people use various objects (such as iPods or crucifixes). Hence, this field studies the meanings and uses people attribute to various objects and practices. Recently, as capitalism has spread throughout the world (a process associated with globalization), cultural studies has begun to analyse local and global forms of resistance to Western hegemony.
In his book Introducing Cultural Studies, Ziauddin Sardar lists the following five main characteristics of cultural studies:
- Cultural studies aims to examine its subject matter in terms of cultural practices and their relation to power. For example, a study of a subculture (such as white working class youth in London) would consider the social practices of the youth as they relate to the dominant classes.
- It has the objective of understanding culture in all its complex forms and of analyzing the social and political context in which culture manifests itself.
- It is both the object of study and the location of political criticism and action. For example, not only would a cultural studies scholar study an object, but she/he would connect this study to a larger, progressive political project.
- It attempts to expose and reconcile the division of knowledge, to overcome the split between tacit cultural knowledge and objective (universal) forms of knowledge.
- It has a commitment to an ethical evaluation of modern society and to a radical line of political action.
Scholars in the United Kingdom and the United States developed somewhat different versions of cultural studies after the field's inception in the late 1970s. The British version of cultural studies was developed in the 1950s and 1960s mainly under the influence first of Richard Hoggart, E. P. Thompson, and Raymond Williams, and later Stuart Hall and others at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. This included overtly political, left-wing views, and criticisms of popular culture as 'capitalist' mass culture; it absorbed some of the ideas of the Frankfurt School critique of the "culture industry" (i.e. mass culture). This emerges in the writings of early British cultural-studies scholars and their influences: see the work of (for example) Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Paul Willis, and Paul Gilroy.
In contrast, "cultural studies was grounded in a pragmatic, liberal-pluralist tradition" in the United States (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002,p. 60).The American version of cultural studies initially concerned itself more with understanding the subjective and appropriative side of audience reactions to, and uses of, mass culture; for example, American cultural-studies advocates wrote about the liberatory aspects of fandom. The distinction between American and British strands, however, has faded.
In Canada, cultural studies has sometimes focused on issues of technology and society, continuing the emphasis in the work of Marshall McLuhan and others. In Australia, there has sometimes been a special emphasis on cultural policy. In South Africa, human rights and Third World issues are among the topics treated. There were a number of exchanges between Birmingham and Italy, resulting in work on Italian leftism, and theories of postmodernism. On the other hand, there is a debate in Latin America about the relevance of cultural studies, with some researchers calling for more action-oriented research. Cultural Studies is relatively undeveloped in France, where there is a stronger tradition of semiotics, as in the writings of Roland Barthes. Also in Germany it is undeveloped, probably due to the continued influence of the Frankfurt School, which has developed a body of writing on such topics as mass culture, modern art and music.
Some researchers, especially in early British cultural studies, apply a Marxist model to the field. This strain of thinking has some influence from the Frankfurt School, but especially from the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser and others. The main focus of an orthodox Marxist approach concentrates on the production of meaning. This model assumes a mass production of culture and identifies power as residing with those producing cultural artifacts. In a Marxist view, those who control the means of production (the economic base) essentially control a culture.
Other approaches to cultural studies, such as feminist cultural studies and later American developments of the field, distance themselves from this view. They criticize the Marxist assumption of a single, dominant meaning, shared by all, for any cultural product. The non-Marxist approaches suggest that different ways of consuming cultural artifacts affect the meaning of the product. This view is best exemplified by the book Doing Cultural Studies: The Case of the Sony Walkman (by Paul du Gay et al.), which seeks to challenge the notion that those who produce commodities control the meanings that people attribute to them. Feminist cultural analyst, theorist and art historian Griselda Pollock contributed to cultural studies from viewpoints of art history and psychoanalysis. The writer Julia Kristeva was an influential voice in the turn of the century, contributing to cultural studies from the field of art and psychoanalytical French feminism.
Ultimately, this perspective criticizes the traditional view assuming a passive consumer, particularly by underlining the different ways people read, receive, and interpret cultural texts. On this view, a consumer can appropriate, actively reject, or challenge the meaning of a product. These different approaches have shifted the focus away from the production of items. Instead, they argue that consumption plays an equally important role, since the way consumers consume a product gives meaning to an item. Some closely link the act of consuming with cultural identity. Stuart Hall and John Fiske have become influential in these developments.
In the context of cultural studies, the idea of a text not only includes written language, but also films, photographs, fashion or hairstyles: the texts of cultural studies comprise all the meaningful artifacts of culture. Similarly, the discipline widens the concept of "culture". "Culture" for a cultural studies researcher not only includes traditional high culture (the culture of ruling social groups) and popular culture, but also everyday meanings and practices. The last two, in fact, have become the main focus of cultural studies. A further and recent approach is comparative cultural studies, based on the discipline of comparative literature and cultural studies.
Contemporary Cultural Studies
Sociologist Scott Lash has recently put forth the idea that cultural studies is entering a new phase. Arguing that the political and economic milieu has fundamentally altered from that of the 1970s, he writes, "I want to suggest that power now... is largely post-hegemonic... Hegemony was the concept that de facto crystallized cultural studies as a discipline. Hegemony means domination through consent as much as coercion. It has meant domination through ideology or discourse..." He writes that the flow of power is becoming more internalized, that there has been "a shift in power from the hegemonic mode of 'power over' to an intensive notion of power from within (including domination from within) and power as a generative force." Resistance to power, in other words, becomes complicated when power and domination are increasingly (re)produced within oneself, within subaltern groups, within exploited people.
On the same subject, American feminist theorist and author of Gender Trouble Judith Butler wrote in the scholarly journal Diacritics an essay entitled "Further Reflections on the Conversions of Our Time", in which she described the shift in these terms:
"The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power."
In response, however, Richard Johnson argues that Lash appears to have misunderstood the most basic concept of the discipline. 'Hegemony', even in the writings of Antonio Gramsci, is not understood as a mode of domination at all, but as a form of political leadership which involves a complex set of relationships between various groups and individuals and which always proceeds from the immanence of power to all social relations. This complex understanding has been taken much further in the work of Stuart Hall and that of political theorist Ernesto Laclau, who has had some influence on Cultural Studies. It is therefore unclear as to why Lash claims that Cultural Studies has understood hegemony as a form of domination, or where the originality of his theory of power is actually thought to lie.
Institutionally, the discipline has undergone major shifts. The Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, which was descended from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, closed in 2002, although by this time the intellectual centre of gravity of the discipline had long since shifted to other universities throughout the world. Strong cultural studies programs can be found in the United Kingdom, North and South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia, and there are a host of journals and conferences where cultural studies research is published and presented.
Cultural studies is not a unified theory but a diverse field of study encompassing many different approaches, methods, and academic perspectives; as in any academic discipline, cultural studies academics frequently debate among themselves. However, some academics from other fields have criticised the discipline as a whole. It has been popular to dismiss cultural studies as an academic fad. Yale literature professor Harold Bloom has been an outspoken critic of the cultural studies model of literary studies. Critics such as Bloom see cultural studies as it applies to literary scholarship as a vehicle of careerism by academics, instead promoting essentialist theories of culture, mobilising arguments that scholars should promote the public interest by studying what makes beautiful literary works beautiful.
Bloom stated his position during the 3 September 2000 episode of C-SPAN's Booknotes:
[T]here are two enemies of reading now in the world, not just in the English-speaking world. One [is] the lunatic destruction of literary studies...and its replacement by what is called cultural studies in all of the universities and colleges in the English-speaking world, and everyone knows what that phenomenon is. I mean, the...now-weary phrase 'political correctness' remains a perfectly good descriptive phrase for what has gone on and is, alas, still going on almost everywhere and which dominates, I would say, rather more than three-fifths of the tenured faculties in the English-speaking world, who really do represent a treason of the intellectuals, I think, a 'betrayal of the clerks'."
Literary critic Terry Eagleton is not wholly opposed to cultural studies theory like Bloom, but has criticised certain aspects of it, highlighting what he sees as its strengths and weaknesses in books such as After Theory (2003). For Eagleton, literary and cultural theory have the potential to say important things about the "fundamental questions" in life, but theorists have rarely realized this potential.
Whereas sociology was founded upon various historic works which purposefully set out to distinguish the subject as distinct from philosophy or psychology, cultural studies lacks any fundamental literature explicitly founding a new discipline. A relevant criticism comes from Pierre Bourdieu who, working in the sociological tradition, wrote on similar topics such as photography, art museums, and modern literature. Bourdieu's point is that cultural studies lacks scientific method. His own work makes innovative use of statistics and in-depth interviews. Cultural studies is relatively unstructured as an academic field. It is difficult to hold researchers accountable for their claims because there is no agreement on method and validity.
The Sokal Affair
One of the most prominent critiques of cultural studies came from physicist Alan Sokal, who submitted an article to a cultural-studies journal, Social Text. This article was what Sokal thought would be a parody of what he perceived to be the "fashionable nonsense" of postmodernists working in cultural studies. As the paper was coming out, Sokal published an article in a self-described "academic gossip" magazine Lingua Franca, revealing the hoax. His explanation for doing this was:
Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism; we have believed that rational thought and the fearless analysis of objective reality (both natural and social) are incisive tools for combating the mystifications promoted by the powerful -- not to mention being desirable human ends in their own right. The recent turn of many "progressive" or "leftist" academic humanists and social scientists toward one or another form of epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about "the social construction of reality" won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.