Cultural Studies in the United Kingdom

While the field of literary studies from its inception took as its exclusive object of interest the literary canon, cultural studies has generally been concerned with what is left over, popular or mass culture—newspapers, magazines, radio, film, television, popular song, and so on— following especially Raymond Williams’s argument in Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (1958) that a proper study of culture should be concerned with not just part but the whole of cultural production. However, in the later 1970s and 1980s cultural studies began to respond to developments of structuralism and poststructuralism, with the result that the binary opposition between high and popular culture has been increasingly challenged. As Antony Easthope has argued in Literary into Cultural Studies, a sense of cultural studies has emerged that takes the works of both high and mass culture together as its purview (considering them as “texts,” “discursive practices,” or “signifying practices”). In Britain these changes followed particularly from the initiatives worked through in the early 1970s in the area of film theory by Stephen Heath, Colin MacCabe, Jacqueline Rose, and others associated with the journal Screen, initiatives that soon became influential in other academic fields—in art history, literary studies proper, and musicology, as well as in the social sciences, historical studies, and social psychology (see Antony Easthope, British Post-Structuralism since 1968, 1988).

The Screen project set out to theorize “the encounter of Marxism and psychoanalysis on the terrain of semiotics” (Heath, “Jaws”201). In doing so it relied heavily on Louis Althusser’s essay “Ideology and Ideological States Apparatuses” which in turn rests on Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic account of how the infant identifies itself in the mirror stage. Looking in a mirror, though it is never more than my likeness, I see the image reflected there as myself and misrecognize my identity in it (“it’s me”) (“The Mirror Stage,” Ecrits, 1966, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan, 1977). Similarly, since I must be somewhere, I live out constituted social roles and identities as though I had freely chosen them. For Althusser it is the crucial work of ideology to “interpellate” or “hail” individuals as subjects, constructing people to act as if they were free agents. This analysis was developed by film theory and subsequently in cultural studies as an account of ideology not (in traditional terms) as content but rather as the operation of a text or group of texts, how they might work to provide a position for the reader. This theorization of subject position owes a lot to the writing of Julia Kristeva (esp. Revolution in Poetic Language (1974), trans. Margaret Waller, 1984), with the difference that while she writes of the subject as positioned within history, Screen, following Althusser’s conception of ideology as acting to interpellate the subject, analyzed the subject as an effect of the text.

Colin MacCabe, for example, in a 1974 essay, “Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses,” aims to analyze what he calls “the classic realist text,” as exemplified in both the nineteenth-century novel and traditional Hollywood. While all texts consist of a bundle of different discourses, in the classic realist text—so MacCabe proposes—discourses are composed in a hierarchy “defined in terms of an empirical notion of truth” (34). This hierarchy corresponds to that between an object language and a metalanguage, between discourse in which a sentence is used and a higher order or metalanguage in which that sentence might be cited or discussed. In MacCabe’s example (one more controversial than he meant it to be), a passage from George Eliot‘s Middlemarch is described to show that what the characters “in” the novel say to each other constitutes an object language set off in quotation marks, while the passages without inverted commas, the narration, seems able to stand outside dialogue as a metalanguage and explain it as it cannot explain itself. In classic realist cinema what is said has the function of object language, while what the camera shows us performs as a metalanguage, revealing the truth about word and action. From this textual strategy two related consequences follow. One is that the metalanguage can present itself to the reader as unwritten, immaterial, a transparent window onto what is represented; another is that the reader (or viewer) is situated as though outside and looking on: “The classic realist text ensures the position of the subject in a relation of dominant specularity” (39). The position of dominant specularity could be seen as confirming the Cartesian or transcendental ego promoted in bourgeois culture, so that against the realist text, the modernist text, by subverting the imaginary security of the subject, potentially might act as a radical intervention (see Colin MacCabe, James Joyce and the Revolution of the Word, 1978). And the position of dominant specularity arguably is also a gendered position.

Laura Mulvey‘s essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” first published in Screen in 1975, has effectively founded a whole body of feminist scholarship concerned with cinema, painting, and the gendering of the gaze. Picking up the work of Juliet Mitchell in her book of 1974, Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Mulvey draws on psychoanalysis to examine areas of ideology and gender that operate below the level of conscious intention. Conventional Hollywood cinema organizes the possibilities of the gaze into a particular structure of binary opposition, so that “active,” “male,” and “sexual looking” are gathered on one side, while “passive,” “female,” and “identification” are gathered on the other: “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly” (19). A whole regime of representation is summed up in Mulvey’s sidehead: “Woman as image, man as bearer of the look.” This analysis has been contested, even by Mulvey herself (“Afterthoughts”), but it has formed a framework for other important work, including Liz Cowie’s essay “Fantasia” (m/f no.9 [1984]), Jacqueline Rose’s Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986), Griselda Pollock’s work in art history, Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism, and Histories of Art (1988), and Mary Ann Doane’s book on “women’s weepies,” The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s (1987).

Analysis of the ideological effect of a text in terms of the subject position it offers to its reader was soon taken over from work on the cinema into other areas of cultural studies, for example in 1978 in Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising. It also entered literary studies, notably with Catherine Belsey’s widely influential book, Critical Practice (1980), which acknowledges that it has drawn “very freely on recent work on film in Screen magazine” (69), and art history, with Norman Bryson’s Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze (1983). However, as far as cultural studies— or a reconstituted and less supinely canonical literary studies—was concerned, a profound theoretical obstacle lay in the path of these new initiatives, one acutely summarized by Stuart Hall, then head of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. In an essay entitled “Cultural Studies: The Two Paradigms” (1980), reviewing work from the previous 20 years, Hall defines the two prevailing traditions in cultural studies as “culturalist” and “structuralist.” The former, based on the work of Raymond Williams and the liberal humanist inheritance, conceives the human subject (whether individual or collective) as freely able to make up meanings for itself and rework social institutions, while the latter, deriving from structuralism and poststructuralism, envisages the subject as an identity or position determined within social and ideological structures of which he or she is an effect. Hall notes but fails to arbitrate between these two views, not least because they point to opposed and probably incompatible sets of assumptions. A culturalist study of signifying practice, affirming the active intervention of individuals and groups within history, gives prominence to the empirical subject, the “actual” reader of the text rereading and reworking it as an event in a social and historical process, while a structuralist-poststructuralist study in contrast, preoccupied with the social and textual structures that individuals live out, would analyze the text or a group of texts in terms of the position it provided to its reader (one which he or she might or might not actually take up).

Within cultural studies a determined and noble attempt to reconcile culturalism and structuralism, the actively experiencing reader with the constituted and positioned reader, was made by the Open University “Popular Culture” course, which ran from 1982 to 1987 and was taken by over 5,000 students. Sponsored by Tony Bennett and involving almost 50 teachers, this course drew on Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony as an explicit means to integrate culturalism and structuralism. It is argued that hegemony specifies that relations between ruling and subordinate blocs are negotiated and that therefore the concept encompasses a theoretical reconciliation between the imposed structures of the dominant ideology and an active cultural expression by the dominated class (see Bennett, Mercer, and Woollacott, Popular Culture and Social Relations). However, it is likely that this view misunderstands Hall’s argument in the “Two Paradigms” essay. Bennett and his co-authors are thinking of a relationship between two blocs within the social formation, while Hall is talking about different conceptions and explanatory accounts of the social formation as a whole. As is well argued by William Ray in Literary Meaning: From Phenomenology to Deconstruction (1984), probably no total conceptualization is able to theorize together in a coherent whole both meaning as event (the process of meaning stressed by culturalism) and meaning as it arises from structure (the organization of the signifiers). If Ray is correct, there will always be a disjunction between the empirical subject and the subject as positioned by the text, between the act of reading and the text read, neither of which can be set aside in any study of culture, whether it stresses the sociological or the semiological, the social formation or the signifying practice.

That issue and the unfolding of the debate around cultural studies in the 1980s have had enormous consequences for the future of literary studies. As the theory wars of the 1970s and 1980s have worn themselves out, academic concern in the humanities increasingly has moved from theoretical generalities to how the new kinds of paradigms for textual analysis might be applied in practice across the variety of literary and non-literary texts. Though this view is certainly not accepted universally, it is integral to the new paradigms that the canon of traditional texts on which literary studies had been founded could no longer claim automatic privilege. Terry Eagleton, for example, in his enormously influential book Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983) argued that textual analysis should be directed at a “whole field of practices rather than just those sometimes rather obscurely labelled literature'” (205). Whether named “discursive practice,” “signifying practice,” or “cultural studies,” a widened version of literary study is now rapidly coming to encompass areas previously designated as “media” or “communication studies” to examine contemporary film, television, advertising, and the popular press alongside works of the literary canon. In the United Kingdom the polytechnics, because of their different relation to the academy, have already widely embraced combined literary and cultural studies courses, and such work is now being instituted as well at a number of university centers—at Sussex, Cardiff, Southampton, Nottingham, and Lancaster (but notably not at the traditionally hegemonic institutions Oxford and Cambridge). In Canada and Australia growing interest in a combined literary-cultural study is gathering pace, and in the United States new forms of curriculum are already in operation at such universities as Duke, Syracuse, and Carnegie- Mellon. The future of literary studies lies with a rethought cultural studies, one that perhaps would aim to hold the balance between culturalism and structuralism in a mode more appropriate to the study of signifying practices than of the historical formation, and so holding in the background some of the sociohistorical concern with which cultural studies began and concentrating more (but not exclusively) on textuality and modes of analysis appropriate to that.

Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” (1970, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, 1971); Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice (1980); Tony Bennett, Colin Mercer, and Janet Woollacott, Popular Culture and Social Relations (1986); Tony Bennett et al., “Popular Culture” (Open University Course U203,1981); Patrick Brantlinger, Crusoe’s Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and America (1990); Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983); Antony Easthope, Literary into Cultural Studies (1991); Antony Easthope and Kate McGowan, eds., A Cultural Studies Reader: Texts and Textuality (1992); John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture (1989); Lawrence Grossberg, Carey Nelson, and Paula Treichler, eds., Cultural Studies (1992); Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies: The Two Paradigms,” Media, Culture, and Society 2 (1980, reprint, Culture, Ideology, and Social Process, ed. Tony Bennett et al., 1981), “The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities,” October 53 (1990); Stephen Heath, “Jaws, Ideology, and Film Theory,” Popular Television and Film (ed. Tony Bennett et al., 1981), Questions of Cinema (1981); Colin MacCabe, “Realism and the Cinema: Notes on Some Brechtian Theses,” Theoretical Essays: Film, Linguistics, Literature (1985); Laura Mulvey, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946)” (1981, Visual and Other Pleasures, 1989), “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975, Visual and Other Pleasures, 1989); Morag Shiach, Discourse on Popular Culture: Class, Gender, History in Cultural Analysis (1989); Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies: An Introduction (1990).
Source: Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth. The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.


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