Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice

HOEL


Concepts are tools for thinking and acting in the world.

« Les concepts sont des outils pour penser et agir dans le monde. »

…cultural studies is a body of theory generated by thinkers who regard the production of theoretical knowledge as a political practice.

« …les cultural studies sont un corps de théorie généré par des penseurs qui regardent la production de connaissances théoriques comme une pratique politique. »

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Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field in which perspectives from different disciplines can be selectively drawn on to examine the relations of culture and power.

« Les cultural studies sont un champ interdisciplinaire dans lequel des perspectives de différentes disciplines peuvent être sélectivement retenues pour examiner les relations entre culture et pouvoir. »

‘Cultural studies is concerned with all those practices, institutions and systems of classification through which there are inculcated in a population particular values, beliefs, competencies, routines of life and habitual forms of conduct’ (Bennett, 1998: 28).

« ‘Les cultural studies sont concernées par toutes ces pratiques, institutions et systèmes de classification au travers desquels sont inculquées dans une population des valeurs particulières, des croyances, des compétences, des routines de vie et des formes habituelles de conduite’ (Bennett, 1998:28). »

The forms of power that cultural studies explores are diverse and include gender, race, class, colonialism, etc. Cultural studies seeks to explore the connections between these forms of power and to develop ways of thinking about culture and power that can be utilized by agents in the pursuit of change.

« Les formes de pouvoir que les cultural studies explorent sont diverses et incluent le genre, la race, la classe, le colonialisme, etc. Les cultural studies cherchent à explorer les connexions entre ces formes de pouvoir et à développer des façons de penser à propos de la culture et du pouvoir qui puissent être utilisées par des agents à la poursuite de changement. »

The prime institutional sites for cultural studies are those of higher education, and as such, cultural studies is like other academic disciplines. Nevertheless, it tries to forge connections outside of the academy with social and political movements, workers in cultural institutions, and cultural management.

« Les principaux sites institutionnels pour les cultural studies sont ceux de l’enseignement supérieur, et à ce titre, les cultural studies sont comme les autres disciplines universitaires. Néanmoins, elles essaient de forger des connexions à l’extérieur de l’université avec les mouvements sociaux et politiques, les travailleurs dans les institutions culturelles et le management culturel. »

Chris Barker & Emma A. Jane

La classe de danse (Edgar Degas, 1875)

                                … what is at stake is the connection that cultural studies seeks to make to matters of power and cultural politics. That is, to an exploration of representations of and ‘for’ marginalized social groups and the need for cultural change.

Given the title of this book – Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice – it would be reasonable to expect a comprehensive account of cultural studies, including summaries and discussions of its main arguments and substantive sites of intellectual enquiry. Indeed, this is what has been attempted. However, we want to open this account of cultural studies with a kind of ‘health warning’ regarding the scope of the book.

CONCERNING THIS BOOK

Selectivity

Any book about cultural studies is necessarily selective and likely to engender debate, argument and even conflict. […] …this book, like all others, is implicated in constructing a particular version of cultural studies. […]

This book is a selective account because it stresses a certain type of cultural studies. In particular, we explore that version of cultural studies which places language at its heart. The kind of cultural studies influenced by poststructuralist theories of language, representation and subjectivity is given greater attention than a cultural studies more concerned with the ethnography of lived experience or with cultural policy. Nevertheless, both do receive attention and we are personally supportive of both. […]

The title of this book is somewhat over-ambitious in its claims. Not only is this a selective account of cultural studies, it is also one that draws very largely from work developed in Britain, the United States, Continental Europe (most notably France) and Australia. We draw very little from the growing body of work in Africa, Asia and Latin America. As such, it would be more accurate to call this text ‘western cultural studies’. […]

The language-game of cultural studies […]

Concepts are tools for thinking and acting in the world.

Cultural studies as politics

It remains difficult to pin down the boundaries of cultural studies as a coherent, unified,  academic discipline with clear-cut substantive topics, concepts and methods that differentiate it from other disciplines. Cultural studies has always been a multi- or post-disciplinary field of enquiry which blurs the boundaries between itself and other ‘subjects’. It is not physics, it is not sociology and it is not linguistics, though it draws upon these subject areas. Indeed, there must be, as Hall (1992a) argues, something at stake in cultural studies that differentiates it from other subject areas.

For Hall, what is at stake is the connection that cultural studies seeks to make to matters of power and cultural politics. That is, to an exploration of representations of and ‘for’ marginalized social groups and the need for cultural change. Hence, cultural studies is a body of theory generated by thinkers who regard the production of theoretical knowledge as a political practice. Here, knowledge is never a neutral or objective phenomenon but a matter of positionality, that is, of the place from which one speaks, to whom, and for what purposes. […]

In this book, we support the idea that cultural studies provides a useful way to think about and engage in cultural politics, but we do not wish to be prescriptive about the form these politics might take. We accept that the notion of ‘progressive’ social change is not commonsensical or self-evident, but varies from person to person. Our aim, therefore, is to offer various conceptual and theoretical architectures that might be useful for thinking about and attempting to effect cultural change, but to leave open the question about what these changes ought to be. […]

THE PARAMETERS OF CULTURAL STUDIES

There is a difference between the study of culture and institutionally located cultural studies. The study of culture has taken place in a variety of academic disciplines (sociology, anthropology, English literature, etc.) and in a range of geographical and institutional spaces. However, this is not to be understood as cultural studies. The study of culture has no origins, and to locate one is to exclude other possible starting points. Nevertheless this does not mean that cultural studies cannot be named and its key concepts identified.

Cultural studies is a discursive formation, that is, ‘a cluster (or formation) of ideas, images and practices, which provide ways of talking about, forms of knowledge and conduct associated with, a particular topic, social activity or institutional site in society’ (Hall, 1997a: 6). Cultural studies is constituted by a regulated way of speaking about objects (which it brings into view) and coheres around key concepts, ideas and concerns. Further, cultural studies had a moment at which it named itself, even though that naming marks only a cut or snapshot of an ever-evolving intellectual project. […]

Disciplining cultural studies

Many cultural studies practitioners oppose forging disciplinary boundaries for the field. However, it is hard to see how this can be resisted if cultural studies wants to survive by attracting degree students and funding (as opposed to being only a postgraduate research activity). In that context, Bennett (1998) offers his ‘element of a definition’ of cultural studies:

  • Cultural studies is an interdisciplinary field in which perspectives from different disciplines can be selectively drawn on to examine the relations of culture and power.
  • ‘Cultural studies is concerned with all those practices, institutions and systems of classification through which there are inculcated in a population particular values, beliefs, competencies, routines of life and habitual forms of conduct’ (Bennett, 1998: 28).
  • The forms of power that cultural studies explores are diverse and include gender, race, class, colonialism, etc. Cultural studies seeks to explore the connections between these forms of power and to develop ways of thinking about culture and power that can be utilized by agents in the pursuit of change.
  • The prime institutional sites for cultural studies are those of higher education, and as such, cultural studies is like other academic disciplines. Nevertheless, it tries to forge connections outside of the academy with social and political movements, workers in cultural institutions, and cultural management.
Criticizing cultural studies

Cultural studies has been criticized for, among other alleged problems, theoretical dilettante-ism, a lack of rigorous scientific method, an ahistorical focus on only contemporary readings of popular mass media texts, and being little more than a fad. Of particular provocation is cultural studies’ challenge to the idea that there exists a single objective reality or truth (see Chapters 2, 3, 6 and 7). The philosopher Roger Scruton uses this as the basis for his claim that, ‘Reason is now on the retreat, both as an ideal and as a reality’ (1999), while Harry G. Frankfurt, another contemporary philosopher, dismisses this approach to thinking as nothing less than ‘bullshit’ (2005).

In some cases, criticisms of cultural studies seem to have a degree of legitimacy – not least because some critiques come from scholars within the field itself. Graeme Turner, for instance, argues that contemporary cultural studies has lost track of its central goal of operating with political and moral purpose for the public good (2012: 12). Even Hall – one of the founding figures in the field – speaks of cultural studies as containing ‘a lot of rubbish’ (cited in Taylor, 2007). In others cases, however, attacks can be read as supporting the central cultural studies claim that there exists strong resistance to the notion that ‘low’ or mass popular culture be considered as seriously as those ‘high’ cultural forms that have traditionally been appreciated only by the elite. Consider, for example, the American literary critic Harold Bloom who views cultural studies as an ‘incredible absurdity’ and as yet another example of the ‘arrogance… of the semi-learned’ (cited in Gritz, 2003). […]

KEY CONCEPTS IN CULTURAL STUDIES

Culture and signifying practices

Cultural studies would not warrant its name without a focus on culture (Chapter 2). As Hall puts it, ‘By culture, here we mean the actual grounded terrain of practices, representations, languages and customs of any specific society. We also mean the contradictory forms of common sense which have taken root in and helped to shape popular life’ (1996c: 439). Culture is concerned with questions of shared social meanings, that is, the various ways we make sense of the world. However, meanings are not simply floating ‘out there’; rather, they are generated through signs, most notably those of language.

Cultural studies has argued that language is not a neutral medium for the formation of meanings and understanding about an independent object world whose meanings exist outside of language. Rather, it is constitutive of those very meanings and knowledge. That is, language gives meaning to material objects and social practices that are brought into view by language and made intelligible to us in terms that language delimits. These processes of meaning production are signifying practices. In order to understand culture, we need to explore how meaning is produced symbolically in language as a ‘signifying system’ (Chapter 3).

Representation

A good deal of cultural studies is centred on questions of representation; that is, on how the world is socially constructed and represented to and by us in meaningful ways. Indeed, the central strand of cultural studies can be understood as the study of culture as the signifying practices of representation. This requires us to explore the textual generation of meaning. It also demands investigation of the modes by which meaning is produced in a variety of contexts. Further, cultural representations and meanings have a certain materiality. That is, they are embedded in sounds, inscriptions, objects, images, books, magazines and television programmes. They are produced, enacted, used and understood in specific social contexts. […]

Materialism and non-reductionism

[…] …cultural studies has been concerned with:

  • who owns and controls cultural production;
  • the distribution mechanisms for cultural products;
  • the consequences of patterns of ownership and control for contours of the cultural landscape.

Having said that, one of the central tenets of cultural studies is its non-reductionism. Culture is seen as having its own specific meanings, rules and practices which are not reducible to, or explainable solely in terms of, another category or level of a social formation. To put it in lay terms: a cultural text, artifact or phenomenon cannot be explained by one single causal factor such as ‘the economy’. […] The non-reductionism of cultural studies insists that questions of class, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nation and age have their own particularities which cannot be reduced either to political economy or to each other.

Articulation

Cultural studies has deployed the concept of articulation in order to theorize the relationships between components of a social formation. This idea refers to the formation of a temporary unity between elements that do not have to go together. Articulation suggests both expressing/ representing and a ‘putting-together’. Thus, representations of gender may be ‘put-together’ with representations of race or nation so that, for example, nations are spoken of as female. This occurs in context-specific and contingent ways that cannot be predicted before the fact. The concept of articulation is also used to discuss the relationship between culture and political economy. Thus culture is said to be ‘articulated’ with moments of production but not determined in any ‘necessary’ way by that moment, and vice versa. Consequently, we might explore not only how the moment of production is inscribed in texts but also how the ‘economic’ is cultural; that is, a meaningful set of practices.

Power

Cultural studies writers generally agree on the centrality of the concept of power to the discipline. For most cultural studies writers, power is regarded as pervading every level of social relationships. Power is not simply the glue that holds the social together, or the coercive force which subordinates one set of people to another, though it certainly may involve these things. It is also understood in terms of the processes that generate and enable any form of social action, relationship or order. In this sense, power, while certainly constraining, is also enabling. Having said that, cultural studies has shown a specific concern with subordinated groups, at first with class, and later with races, genders, nations, age groups, etc.

Ideology and popular culture

Subordination is a matter not just of coercion but also of consent. Cultural studies has commonly understood popular culture to be the ground on which this consent is won or lost. As a way of grasping the interplay of power and consent, two related concepts were repeatedly deployed in cultural studies’ earlier texts, though they are less prevalent these days – namely, ideology and hegemony.

The term ‘ideology’ is commonly used to refer to maps of meaning that, while purporting to be universal truths, are actually historically specific understandings that obscure and maintain power. For example, television news produces understandings of the world that continually explain it in terms of nations, perceived as ‘naturally’ occurring objects. This may have the consequence of obscuring both the class divisions of social formations and the constructed character of nationality.

Representations of gender in advertising, which depict women as housewives or sexy bodies alone, are seen to be reducing women to those categories. As such, they may deny women their place as full human beings and citizens. The process of making, maintaining and reproducing ascendant meanings and practices has been called hegemony. Hegemony implies a situation where a ‘historical bloc’ of powerful groups exercises social authority and leadership over subordinate groups through the winning of consent.

Texts and readers

The production of consent implies popular identification with the cultural meanings generated by the signifying practices of hegemonic texts. The concept of text suggests not simply the written word, though this is one of its senses, but also all practices that signify. This includes the generation of meaning through images, sounds, objects (such as clothes) and activities (like dance and sport). Since images, sounds, objects and practices are sign systems, which signify with the same mechanism as a language, we may refer to them as cultural texts.

However, the meanings that critics read into cultural texts are not necessarily the same as those produced by active audiences or readers. Indeed, readers will not necessarily share all the same meanings with each other. Critics, in other words, are simply a particular breed of reader. Further, texts, as forms of representation, are polysemic. That is, they contain the possibility of a number of different meanings that have to be realized by actual readers who give life to words and images. We can examine the ways in which texts work, but we cannot simply ‘read-off’ audiences’ meaning production from textual analysis. At the very least, meaning is produced in the interplay between text and reader. Consequently, the moment of consumption is seen by many as a moment of meaningful production.

Subjectivity and identity

The moment of consumption marks one of the processes by which we are formed and we form ourselves as persons. What it is to be a person, viz. subjectivity, and how we describe ourselves to each other, viz. identity, became central areas of concern in cultural studies during the 1990s. In other words, cultural studies explores:

  • how we come to be the kinds of people we are;
  • how we are produced as subjects;
  • how we identify with (or emotionally invest in) descriptions of ourselves as male or female, black or white, young or old.

The argument, known as anti-essentialism, is that identities are not things that exist; they have no essential or universal qualities. Rather, they are discursive constructions, the product of discourses or regulated ways of speaking about the world. In other words, identities are constituted (made rather than found) by representations such as language. A particularly cogent example involves gender identity and the idea that gender is not something we ‘are’ but something we ‘perform’ or ‘do’ – as explored by the feminist philosopher Judith Butler (1990) (see also Chapters 7 and 9).

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KEY CONCEPTS

  • Active audiences
  • Anti-essentialism
  • Articulation
  • Cultural materialism
  • Culture
  • Discourse
  • Discursive formation
  • Hegemony
  • Identity
  • Ideology
  • Language-game
  • Political economy
  • Politics
  • Polysemy
  • Popular culture
  • Positionality
  • Power
  • Representation
  • Signifying practices
  • (the) Social
  • Social formation
  • Subjectivity
  • Texts

Chris Barker & Emma A. Jane – Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice


Hall, S. (1992a) ‘Cultural Studies and its Theoretical Legacies’ in L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P. Treichler (eds) Cultural Studies

Hall, S. (1996c) ‘Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity’ in D. Morley and D.-K. Chen (eds) Stuart Hall

Hall, S. (1997a) ‘The Work of Representation’ in S. Hall (ed.) Representation

Bennett, T. (1998) Culture: A Reformer’s Science

Scruton, R. (1999) ‘What Ever Happened to Reason?’ in City Journal

Frankfurt, H. G. (2005) On Bullshit

Turner, G. (2012) What’s Become of Cultural Studies?

Taylor, L. (2007) ‘Culture’s revenge: Laurie Taylor interviews Stuart Hall’ in New Humanist

Gritz, J. R. (2003) ‘Ranting Against Cant’ in The Atlantic

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity

CRITICISMS OF 'CULTURAL STUDIES' :

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“Discourse, for Foucault, is the product of an epoch, and exists by virtue of the prevailing social “power.” It is what Marx called “ideology”: a collection of ideas that have no authority in themselves but that disguise and mystify the social reality. There is no more to truth than the power that finds it convenient; and by unmasking power, we disestablish truth. In any epoch, there are those who refuse the prevailing discourse. These are denounced, marginalized—even incarcerated as mad. Theirs is the voice of “unreason,” and, for those in authority, what they utter is not truth but delirium. However, Foucault makes clear, there is nothing objective in this denunciation of madness: it is no more than a device whereby the established power, the power of the bourgeois order, sustains itself, by safeguarding its own “truth” against the rival discourse that rejects it.”

Roger Scruton – ‘What Ever Happened to Reason?

“I hadn’t meant to talk to Stuart about cultural studies. But I realised that his pleas for a proper recognition of the ground upon which we operate was a way of referring to the ground-clearing work, the radical intellectual practice, that he hoped cultural studies might undertake. Was he still interested in that version of the subject?

Yes, I do want to go on thinking about cultural studies. But not as a field. I never defended it as a field. I think that as a field it contains a lot of rubbish.

Laurie Taylor – ‘Culture’s revenge: Laurie Taylor interviews Stuart Hall

“(Harold Bloom, a staunch defender of the Western literary tradition, returns to Shakespeare, “the true multicultural author.”)”

“If you spend a lifetime reading and teaching and writing, I would think that the proper attitude to take toward Shakespeare, toward Dante, toward Cervantes, toward Geoffrey Chaucer, toward Tolstoy, toward Plato—the great figures—is indeed awe, wonder, gratitude, deep appreciation. I can’t really understand any other stance in relation to them. I mean, they have formed our minds. And Hamlet is the most special of special cases. I’ve been accused of “bardolotry” so much that I’ve made a joke out of it. As I am something of a dinosaur, I’ve named myself Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolator. It’s not such a bad thing to be.

This attitude of reverence is what sets you apart from many of your colleagues. You don’t seem to belong to any particular school of literary criticism.

Well, it’s such a complex thing. I left the English department twenty-six years ago. I just divorced them and became, as I like to put it, Professor of Absolutely Nothing. To a rather considerable extent, literary studies have been replaced by that incredible absurdity called cultural studies which, as far as I can tell, are neither cultural nor are they studies. But there has always been an arrogance, I think, of the semi-learned.

You know, the term “philology” originally meant indeed a love of learning—a love of the word, a love of literature. I think the more profoundly people love and understand literature, the less likely they are to be supercilious, to feel that somehow they know more than the poems, stories, novels, and epics actually know.

And, of course, we have this nonsense called Theory with a capital T, mostly imported from the French and now having evilly taken root in the English-speaking world. And that, I suppose, also has encouraged absurd attitudes toward what we used to call imaginative literature.”

Jennie Rothenberg Gritz – ‘Ranting Against Cant