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an overview of cultural studies

Bob Trubshaw

Exactly what are 'cultural studies'? This can be quite difficult for outsiders to get a grasp on. This ambiguity is in large part because there are at least four rather different 'versions' of cultural studies. These can be thought of as the French, British, American and Australian versions.

Indeed the word 'culture' itself is deeply problematical. Mark Woolley has suggested that 'culture is the product of humanity acting within an environment. Humans act not so much in the natural environment but in a consumption-based environment.'

On of the leading British 'cult studs', John Hartley, has been quoted as saying that cultural studies is 'the study of power within the context of meaning' and sees it less as a fully-mature discipline and 'more of a critical, questioning, quizzical, not-quite-discourse...' (Brooker 1998: 124; 129)

Cultural studies is a child of the 1960s, although its parents can be traced in British literary criticism from the 1930s onwards plus German and French intellectual ideas of the late 1950s onwards. The second half of the 1960s into the 1970s was when a new generation of British academics delighting in challenging the 'fuddy duddy' ivory towers of the university system. The emergent cultural studies challenged the old guard in trumps – calling themselves 'cult studs', embracing the most popular manifestations of culture, and liberally incorporating the exoticism of the latest post-structuralist and post-modernist French philosophers.

British cultural studies in the 1970s centred on the University of Birmingham but proliferated in the then-polytechnics. Far from offering a homogenous approach, the different manifestations cross-bred with such diverse disciplines as literary criticism, psychology, linguistics, communication theory, history, media studies, and sociology.

Subsequently American academics developed their own equally eclectic versions of cultural studies 'imported' directly from the French writers, and the Australians went on to mix and match from the British, French and American approaches. Although this has resulted in a great variety of different approaches within cultural studies, they can be broadly described as being very 'theory aware', with a particular emphasis on all aspects of post-modernism and 'deconstruction'.

In the 1970s British cult studs studied very parochial 'texts' like the teenage girls' magazine Jackie and the TV news review Nationwide. Much of their writing concerned the British class system of the time. None of these appealed to US and Australian academics who, understandably, looked to their own popular culture.

Around the same time French academics were (especially Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau) were looking at the way power was dispersed and decentred. Certeau's study of the ways 'dominant' culture is interpreted, subverted and made into a bricoloage of 'scraps' is often overlooked but is more relevant to foamy custard than, say, Foucault's overly-simplistic notions of the politics of power. Certeau's bricolage manifests as, say, the slang and dialects of street cultures; the wider syncretism of 1970s punk; or 1990s 'cyber punks' (such as author William Gibson, Erik Davis, Mark Dery, Steven Shaviro, Sadie Plant). Indeed Certeau's theorising is especially relevant to many aspects of what might be termed modern 'folk' culture, lore and custom.

Since the late 1980s 'popular culture' (always a problematical term) has become epitomised, at least among cult studs, as 'commercial culture' – such as tabloid newspapers, TV game shows, Levi jeans (and their adverts), Madonna, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on and so on. Such culture is often termed 'mass culture', presumably because it relies on the 'mass media' for its dissemination. I find the term 'mass culture' somewhat problematical as it suggests a 'culture of the masses'. Perhaps the terms 'commercial culture' or 'hegemonic culture' would be more accurate.

The understandable popularity of 'popular culture' (i.e. mass/ commercial/ hegemonic culture) and the trendiness of focussing on those parts of it that have been dubbed 'trash culture' (or even 'bad subjects') has, sadly, created a huge blind spot in culture studies with the result that many other aspects of culture that more justifiably deserve to be termed 'popular' (and most certainly pervade modern society as much as so-called 'mass' and 'trash' culture) had been overlooked (see separate article).

'Audiences' (more often best thought of as 'consumers') for popular/ commercial culture are, according to cult studs, able to resist, oppose, negotiate and manipulate the 'given' messages. Quite whether such so-called 'semiotic resistance' really empowers the members of the 'audience' or amounts to very much depends on where one looks.

The quote from John Hartley towards the opening of this article, that cultural studies is the study of power within the context of meaning, confirms that the underlying interest is in the way 'popular culture' conveys cultural conceptions of 'power' and 'dominance', and how the 'audience' creates 'resistance' and creates (or at least adapts) its own notions of 'power' and 'dominance'. However, areas not usually looked at by cult studs, such as the lore and customs of people brought together by shared employment or leisure interests (the 'lore' that defines and 'bonds' what folklorists call 'folk groups'), are also examples of 'semiotic empowerment'. Indeed they may offer more rewarding examples than looking for 'semiotic resistance' to so-called 'popular culture'.

Other topics and 'buzz words' of cultural studies include:

A recent parody of post-modernism has mocked such terms as 'detecting and disabling master narratives', 'deciding what is hegemonic over what and why', 'reconciling emergent and residual forms', 'cognitive mapping', 'diachronic and synchronic factors', and 'retotalising the Real'. While fully agreeing that an excess of jargon offers a soft target for satire, most of the 'hard sciences' are far more jargon-ridden than the humanities. While accepting that there is no excuse for using unnecessary 'jargon' when trying to write for a wider readership, technical terminology (assuming it is used effectively and not as a 'smoke screen' for woolly thinking) is an essential shorthand when exchanging ideas 'among friends', such as fellow academics. 'Master narratives', hegemony' and all the rest can readily be abused by sloppy authors, but this does not necessarily diminish the importance of the underlying concepts.

The weaker sort of cultural studies reduces everything to a 'text' that can be ingeniously (re)read (and, oh, the use of constructions like (de)construct, (in)visible and (re)read) are so symptomatic). Sometimes such (re)reading is politically-informed but mostly they come across as 'ultimately ungrounded, arbitrary, and shallow' (Cary Nelson, cited by Janet Wolff).

One paper which illustrates many of the strengths of theory-aware cultural studies approach is Mark Woolley study of nostalgia (such as the revival of the Sex Pistols in the 1990s) in his article 'Beyond simulation: production and the nostalgia industry' (unfortunately no longer online).

There are a small number of individuals bridging cultural studies and sociology of culture. Janet Wolff has written a lucid account of her own experience. In this article she draws attention to the way sociologists recognise the importance of institutional processes and structures in the study of culture. Such 'structures' are the classic distinctions of class, status, gender, nationality and ethnicity. Despite more theoretically-aware sociologists arguing for the last 25 years that all these are not 'given' but, rather, created by the underlying cultures, too many sociologists still take these as unproblematical concepts. Wolff acknowledges that until the 1990s none of the sociologists had been making a good job of 'the production of culture', although since then there have been some more critical approaches.

Cultural studies has always been an 'open' adventure, with few clearly-defined boundaries and a propensity to partner seemingly unlikely disciplines. Foamy custard's highlighting of aspects of folklore and mythology 'theory' seems to offer some avenues for exploration not previously considered, although can hardly be expected to make any major waves among the cultural studies community. Conversely the smaller (and far too often theoretically na´ve or outdated) folklore and mythology 'communities' can usefully stand on the shoulders of the cult studs to develop more informed approaches to their studies.

There is a vast number of cultural studies research which has been published on the Internet. See foamy custard's links page for some of the more important cultural studies 'portals'.

further reading

For an easily-digested introduction to the history of Cultural Studies and the pros of cons of the different approaches, see Will Brooker's Cultural Studies (Teach Yourself Books 1998) and John Storey's Inventing Popular Culture (Blackwell 2003). See also Elizabeth Long (ed), From Sociology to Cultural Studies, (Blackwell 1998).

end note

This article is a 'quick and dirty' effort just to get the pilot pages of foamy custard up and running. There are plenty of undiluted assertions and intentionally contentious opinions (and probably plenty of unintentional ones too!). I am open to suggestions for improvement, or indeed for someone to offer a better introduction!

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003

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