Lecture – 06 Introduction to Cultural Studies
Dear participants, we have already established definitions for studying literature, culture and media. In this week, we would take up the beginnings of cultural studies, how they evolved during the 20th century as well as the work of certain major critical theorists who are necessary for us to understand the developments not only in the context of literary studies.
But also in the context of media studies. The discipline of cultural studies is best understood as a post-disciplinary one.
It is a challenging concept which combined different departments and subjects including political economy, geography, social theory, cultural anthropology, art, philosophy media study. One can almost understand it as being a very chaotic mix but we find that soon it is started to establish itself as an independent domain of a study. It studies cultural phenomena and its relationship with various ideologies.
Culture as we know has so many varieties, it is not monolithic, it is a mass of several interpretations taken simultaneously and every interpretation has so many connotations, so it is a problematic word to define and at the same time, when we look at the categories of culture particularly in terms of binaries which were understood during the modernist era as being the final ones.
For example, the binaries of high and low, elite and populated etc., then we find that the concept of culture is also a highly hierarchical one. Culture cannot be monolithic or fixed, it is also not a stable, it is continuously interactive and therefore it is also a mutable one. Cultural meanings are part of the processes which are involved in its classification and therefore, the interpretations can also be highly subjective.
It is pertinent to quote Pierre Bourdieu here who says that taste classifies the classifier; the word culture also has multiple connotations.
And in the same way, the studies of cultural theories also developed with the help of multiplicity of models. They also incorporated critical social theory and cultural criticism to understand the relationship between culture and society. There have been classical as well as contemporary social theories to understand how this word is to be framed within a given context. So, these theories investigate how cultural practices relate to wider systems of power which is associated with or operates through social phenomena.
And the social phenomena incorporates the class structure, the ideologies, the ethnicities and of late as we would see later on, the sexual orientations, race, gender, etc. So, it can be developed in a theoretical as well as in an empirical manner. We find that it is during the 1960’s and 70’s that perceptions about culture and cultural studies started changing.
In the United Kingdom, these studies were taken up by Richard Hoggart, Stuart Hall etc., who also established the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University and started a study programme which was a confluence of interdisciplinary intellectual currents particularly involving the study of sociology, Marxist political theory as well as a structural semiotics.
In the USA, we find that the cultural studies program took a very different shape and they developed in an empiricist manner for example, like audience surveys etc., and they were chiefly carried out in departments of media studies and anthropology. The term cultural studies is associated with the intellectual and the scholarly tradition which was inaugurated by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies as well as its offshoots in America and France.
When you look at this phenomena of the studies of culture, we find that it is of different types. We may have Marxist models, neo Marxian models for example, as they developed in the Frankfurt School or the Althuserrian paradigms of culture, neo Weberian, Neo Durkheimian, feminist, postmodern and post structuralist studies of culture are very different in their approaches from each other.
There is an application of a wide range of those approaches which are often heterogeneous that use different social theories to study the nature of culture. This centre was particularly influenced by the Frankfurt School and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School anticipated several critical stances which were taken up by the theories which were associated with this centre at Birmingham.
Cultural studies also necessitate a close study of the social theory as well as we can say that cultural studies in turn are a crucial part of a critical theory of society.
So, it becomes clear to us let the feel of critical theory and related literary criticism in the area of cultural studies was pioneered by British academics in 1964 with the establishment of this centre, the term cultural studies was used, first of all by Richard Hoggart, when he founded the centre in 1964 and as we have already seen it is an interdisciplinary study program which combines different disciplines which were previously taken up as independent schools of thoughts.
Partially it was because of this reason that Hoggart had to face several challenges when he was about to begin this program and Birmingham University dissociated itself financially and also in principle in a major way from the establishment of the centre and Richard Hoggart consequently had to introduce a rather watered down study program in the beginning based on a very closed study of literary texts.
Culture can be defined as a whole wide arena of all human activities and experiences, earlier it was considered to be associated with the elite class only but in the 20th century, we find that it was considered to be a wider phenomena, which was not associated only with the elite classes. It also studied what was previously considered as something inferior and therefore was excluded from academic domains.
And the cultural studies started to blur the distinctions between the high and low culture and related artefacts also. It refused to establish culture as a monolithically defined or a singular formation, it treated culture as an emergent often contradictory and therefore, initially a heterogeneous concept. Cultural studies also started to examine the processes of culture which are active and dynamic and interdisciplinary in nature, who works and also the means of production.
It also looked at the development of cultural formations in a specific material context and the socio and economic effects of such dynamic cultural formations. The formulates that all human activity is a product of and shapes socio political reality was a core concern of these programs, in addition to this it was also characterised by a certain political activism, one cannot say that it wanted to propagate a particular political ideology.
But definitely political activism was associated with the very nature of this centre. It also analysed the power structures, the formation of power structures, its translation and passage through various cultural artefacts and immense social possibilities which could be associated with it.
The cultural studies approach initially used a textual approach; it has borrowed from semiotics to expand the definition of texts to include those norms, rules and practices which are symbolically intelligible. So, cultural formations for them did not include only the books or the traditional texts for example but they try to look at all those customary artefacts which could be produced in the fields related with verbal, visual, musical or material representation as well as the social practices and relations and traditions they were embedded in.
So, the processes by which power relations controlled produce and disseminate cultural artefacts were also studied and when they talked about cultural artefacts, they also included films, music, sports, food habits etc. It also studies the interrelationships of forms, practices and people and therefore we find that they had a proclivity toward semiotics and discourse analysis which became a basis for analysing signifying practices for people related with this ideology.
As Cashman has suggested cultural studies generally presuppose that all cultural formations are embedded in symbolic and material structures of power and that symbolic, such structures have real effects. So we can say that automatically cultural studies emphasise the role of individual as well as of the local agency in looking at possibilities of resistance, so they study not only the ideology which is dominant but they also study how that ideology can be subverted.
And they try to find out the possibilities of resistance within the study of the cultural artefacts which may be the produce of a dominant culture. So therefore they see the cultural field as a site of constant formation as well as reformation and contestation, it is from within the folds of the dominant culture that the possibilities of resistance would come up and therefore, they focus on individuals in well-defined settings be it historical, geographical or social.
They have insisted on the specificity of the human subject and their contexts and therefore they defy normativity of erstwhile cultural models. The cultural studies as we understand them today are known for their self-reflexive analysis and critique of its own suppositions and therefore, the issues of how knowledge is produced and how knowledge is circulated is a key issue in contemporary cultural analysis.
Cultural theories are engaged with the problem that critical analysis can itself be an ideological one and here I would prefer to quote from Cashman who says that interestingly, “these cultural studies also privileged autobiographical, personal, auto ethnographic, evaluative, political obligations and deferred claims to a standard of objectivity or science”. So, Cashman has questioned the objectivity as well as the scientific nature of analysis which sometimes these study programs claim to adopt.
Philosophers and theorists associated with a cultural studies program in the United Kingdom were particularly inspired by the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and particularly it was his notion of cultural hegemony which was continuously debated on in the works of theories associated with the centre. Classical Marxism has viewed culture as an instrument of control; Gramsci suggested that the brute force of capitalism seeps into the everyday culture of the working classes.
And therefore, the theory of hegemony and its variations which were later on developed, where central to British culture studies, which studied how the subaltern can resist and respond to the forces of domination in different fields of experience.
When we look at the main characteristics of cultural studies, we find that there are 5 major characteristics which have been very appropriately listed by Ziauddin Sardar and I quote from him. The first characteristic which is mentioned is that the cultural studies aimed to examine and theorise on cultural practices and their relationship to power and also they study how the power relations influence and shape cultural practices in a given society.
For instance, a study of social practices of subculture and dominant forms of culture can be taken up to examine the dynamics of power within a society. Secondly, we find that the analysis of socio economic context is a major characteristic behaviour of cultural studies. Their objective is to understand and examine culture in all its complexities as well as in all its contradictions and therefore, the context of social and economic courses is necessarily included in this study.
Cultural studies normally review culture as performing two different functions simultaneously, culture is both the object of a study and the location of political critique and action, so it is both an intellectual and pragmatic exercise and these two functions cannot be compartmentalised. They have to be studied together. Cultural studies also endeavour to uncover and reconcile the division of knowledge.
So that the split between the tacit and objective forms of knowledge can be overcome, by the tacit forms of knowledge, we normally understand intuitive knowledge which is based on the local cultures and traditions whereas the objective forms of knowledge are the so called universal forms of knowledge. Cultural studies is also committed to a radical line of political action, it is committed to an ethical and moral evaluation of modern society.
And therefore, also feels that a critical social reconstruction through political involvement is a social necessity and therefore takes a line towards political activism. If we look at the origins of cultural studies particularly, in Britain we find that the intellectual background had already been paved by different critical forces.
Already, the intellectual background was there to critically review the idea of culture and mass culture in the beginning of the 20th century. There was also a critique of the great tradition of English life and culture. Philosophers associated with the Frankfurt School of criticism had already started to talk about various ideas which were later on developed by philosophers associated with the Birmingham School of cultural studies particularly by Raymond Williams.
So, we also find that there was a process to document and positively assess the cultures of the working class people and how they had tried to build certain modes of resistance and subversion of the dominant capitalist culture. We find that 3 major theorists were important to establish CCCS in 1964 and gave a particular shape to cultural studies program in UK and they are Richard Hoggart who was the founder of this Centre, E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams.
Let us briefly look at the opinions and the contributions of these theorists. British cultural theories were basically Marxist and poststructuralist, so they studied cultural artefacts not only as a specimen of aesthetic creativity but also as products of social and material processes for example, if one looks at a film, it should not only be looked at for its aesthetic value, for its content.
But we also should consider the economic aspects related with its production, profit making and distribution, reviewers as well as the politics of awards etc., only then we would be able to study a particular film in complete detail and with somewhat objectivity. So cultural artefacts according to these philosophers are also political science because it fortifies certain ideologies and hide manipulations which are bought in practice by the capitalist patriarchy or racial factors also.
So, we can say that it is the notion of ideological representation which is central in the philosophies of these theorists and they are also particularly interested in studying language and how it can be taken up in the form of discourse and how it can be situated in a particular context.
Identity according to these philosophers is constituted through experience and experience also involves representation, a study as well as influence of science, how they construct a particular meaning, how the knowledge of meanings is understood in circulated and at the same time, we find that a certain postcolonial awareness is also there. The British theoreticians had centralised debates on race and gender in critical and academic circles.
Postmodernist developments also brought in postcolonial discourse within its gambit and it is interesting to look at a Stephen Heath’s phrase in this context who says literature in use as use and it is exactly what these theorists wanted to study. Let us take up the work of Richard Hoggart briefly to understand and evaluate the critical contribution.
He was a founder of CCCS in 1964 as we have already seen and his vision for the centre was to apply the literary critical analysis and critique to various forms of mass culture, he; his pioneer work was The Uses of Literacy which was published in 1957, it is a work of cultural studies before the establishment of the discipline and therefore, its significance can be easily understood. This work is partly autobiographical and partly a work of literary criticism.
It is an ethnographically rich autobiographical account which sets out to look at the personal and the concrete life of the working classes. It presents a humane account of the northern working class people what exactly were their customs, what type of languages they were using, at a point which was historically important that was a clash of pre and post war cultures and values and he also tried to study how new forms of media and mass culture were shifting working class values gradually and they were eroding them in a systematic manner.
Often he was criticised by other philosophers for his attempts to establish what they termed, cult of the contemporary.
In his 1963 inaugural lecture at Birmingham, Hoggart had emphasised the importance of studying the contemporary changes in people's languages, reading habits, customs and everyday practice. He first attempted to dissolve or unhinge the divide between ordinary culture and established literary canon and tried to incorporate mass culture into critical study forums. He tentatively called his new approach literature and contemporary cultural studies.
He was initially refused a grant by Birmingham to start his new centre because it was thought that his ideas are very radical and he also therefore, initially employed a method of close reading which he termed as reading of tone to various forms of mass cultures like women's magazines, crime fictions etc. This literary method was a low-key attempt to pacify the purists who had opposed him.
He has put the living cultures of the working class at the centre of serious academic study, he radically departs from the notion of cultural criticism which was put forward by Matthew Arnold, he has questioned the cultural classlessness as well as the cultural subordination of the working class people. In his work he has put forward the idea that the commercial society is replacing and subordinating the existing working class culture.
And he has given a particular example. The distinctive working class culture inheres an extended network of solidarity between neighbourhood communities for example which is very much opposed to bourgeois value of competition and service. However, his perception was and his reading was that these traditional values of the working class people are being gradually and systematically eroded.
He also warns against reductionism which is a critical tool claim that once views as self-evident and thus simplifies the complexities of human experiences.
Another major theorist who also contributed in a major way to the development of cultural studies is E. P. Thompson. Like Williams and Hoggart, he also formulated the changes in English culture as a response to industrialisation, urbanisation and consumerism, he also criticised the excesses and the horrors of industrial development but looked at culture as a positive force that could uplift people and improve the conditions of their life.
He is known for his pioneering work Making of the English Working Class which was published in 1963. This book is a Marxist analysis of social and political history with certain additional dimensions which he has given to the core Marxist beliefs. This book also transformed how leftist historians had tried to define the idea of social class and instead of focusing on the overall structures of capitalism in this book Thompson has focused on the artisanal and working class cultures in the preindustrial British society.
He looked at the preindustrial British society particularly the working classes in the society neither as victims of history nor as mere cogs in the capitalist contraption but he looked at them as active agents who were attempting to adjust to the industrial revolution with group effort, consciousness and also a political activism. He details the ways in which ordinary people at the bottom of social hierarchy, created their own identity.
And he has also looked at the creation of working class organisations in the later half of the 18th century which were established for education and politics by these classes
So, Thompson has looked at the social organisation of working class people in terms of trade and skill. These working class people who were neither the middle class people nor the peasants but they had distinct cultural traditions, their own speech patterns, their own political spaces, songs and rich cultural traditions. They were not a class and yet became a class and this justifies the title of his book, the making of the class that is referred to in his title.
And I quote from him, “in the years between 1780 and 1832, most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves and as against other men whose interests are different from and usually opposed to theirs”. His central contribution is that the understanding of class consciousness as opposed to Marxian conception of class in itself was introduced. He demonstrated the shift from class in itself to the idea of class for itself which was missing in traditional Marxist theory.
He had emphasised the autonomous agency of the working classes in the preindustrial revolution era of British society. He argues that the culture, ideas and organisations of the working class at this time were not derived from the structures of labour and capital but were created through popular organisation, creativity, solidarity and leadership. Certain elements of Thompson’s historiography can be understand here.
For example, he established a new paradigm for writing history from a Marxist perspective is still you know it was a huge leap from the classical model of Marxism; he has followed an ethnographic approach and recognise the importance of class and ideology in the creation of the British society.
His argument that the working class consciousness had blossomed by the early 1830’s became a controversial argument, according to him the working class consciousness was not a mechanical product or a result of capitalist structures however, Thompson says that the working class consciousness was formed as a result of concentrated efforts on the part of a disparate working class and this early class consciousness had transformed the character of radical politics in 18th- century England.
He also contributed to the deeper understanding of class character of English society under industrial capitalism, we also feel the presence of a humanist strain in his analysis of class structure. He has also detailed the struggles of English Jacobins, Luddites, trade unionists, handloom weavers, early socialist and all the other strands that made the working class a social and political force.
So, we find that these 2 theoreticians have contributed to the development of cultural studies as we understand it today. In our next module we would take up the contribution of the third philosopher whom we have referred to in this module, Raymond Williams in detail, thank you.
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