Cultural Studies in the United States

Cultural studies emerged as a distinctive academic discipline in the English-speaking world between the 1960s and the 1990s as part of the broad shift in universities to new kinds of interdisciplinary analysis. Parallel to contemporaneous developments in ethnic studies and women’s studies, programs in cultural studies, which often originated as units of English or communications departments, tended to be institutionalized as centers and institutes rather than as departments. What most readily distinguished cultural studies from mainline literary studies were new and different objects of study and modes of inquiry. In addition, cultural studies both reflected and propounded a cultural politics opposed to the belletrism and formalism characteristic of postwar academic literary studies in the Anglophone world. Typically, adherents of cultural studies conceived themselves—and were conceived by others—as being in opposition to the reigning establishment of university disciplines and values.

Among the objects of study commonly examined in programs of cultural studies were such wildly diverse “discourses” as advertising, art, architecture, urban folklore, movies, fashion, popular literary genres (thrillers, romances, Westerns, science fiction), photography, music, magazines, youth subcultures, student texts, theories of criticism, theater, radio, women’s literature, television, and working-class literature. Against the regnant exclusive focus on aesthetic masterpieces of canonized high literature, advocates of cultural studies characteristically advanced the claims of “low,” popular, and mass cultures. (In this work they followed in the wake of the earlier Frankfurt school scholars and the New York Intellectuals, among others, who pioneered modes of cultural inquiry from the 1930s to the 1960s.) During the postmodern period the arts and activities to be found in the ordinary shopping mall appeared as worthy of serious study and analysis as the artifacts and artworks enthroned in the traditional monumental museum. Potentially, the whole spectrum of cultural objects, practices, and texts constituting a society provided the materials of cultural studies. In the event that belletristic literature was examined from the perspective of cultural studies, the emphasis was invariably put on literature as communal event or document with social, historical, and political roots and ramifications. In short, the work of “literature” was not treated as an autonomous aesthetic icon separable from its conditions of production, distribution, and consumption—quite the contrary.

The modes of inquiry employed in cultural studies included not only established survey techniques, field interviews, textual explications, and researches into sociohistorical backgrounds but also and especially institutional and ideological analyses. For scholars of cultural studies institutional analysis entailed a conception of institutions as productive agencies that both constituted and disseminated knowledge and belief by means of systematic practices and conventions affecting cultural discourses. For example, studies of present-day popular romances examined the practices of publishing companies and bookstores in shaping and maintaining the rules of the romance genre as well as in packaging and promoting ongoing avalanches of “successful” (reproductions of the form. Since institutions overlap, an investigation into one frequently leads to a second. In the case of romance, a scrutiny of the genre’s powerful presence in television soap operas and women’s magazines links together publishers, booksellers, television programmers, and magazine editors. To generalize, networks of institutions play crucial roles in creating, conditioning, and commodifying cultural works. As such, the application of institutional analysis is central to the enterprise of cultural studies.

Whereas institutional analysis is focused on the material means and methods employed by institutions involved in the circulation of cultural objects and texts, ideological analysis is given over to examining the ideas, feelings, beliefs, and representations embodied in and promulgated by the artifacts and practices of a culture. Obviously, institutional and ideological analysis overlap. For instance, Richard Ohmann in English in America (1976) depicted the institution of English studies as a disseminator not only of the skills of analysis, organization, and fluency but of the “attitudes” of detachment, caution, and cooperation, all of which aid the smooth operation of modern capitalist societies. Because the objects, texts, and institutions of a culture create and convey ideology, the use of ideological analysis is fundamental to the work of cultural studies, which invariably seeks to investigate the ideological dimensions and forces of cultural works.

Characteristic of cultural studies in English-speaking universities is a leftist political orientation rooted variously in Marxist, non-Marxist, and post-Marxist socialist intellectual traditions all critical of the aestheticism, formalism, anti-historicism, and apoliticism common among the dominant postwar methods of academic literary criticism. Advocates of cultural studies regularly apply to the analysis of cultural materials insights from contemporary anthropology (esp. ethnography), economics, history, media studies, political theory, and sociology. Not surprisingly, the twin habits of isolating and of monumentalizing the arts and humanities are anathema to adherents of cultural studies. To sacralize is to deracinate and mummify. Cultural studies seeks to analyze and assess the social roots, the institutional relays, and the ideological ramifications of communal events, organizations, and artifacts. Such a project predisposes analysts to intervene actively in arenas of cultural struggle. The conservative role of the traditional intellectual as disinterested connoisseur and custodian of culture is widely regarded as suspect and unworthy by proponents of cultural studies.

The most well-known academic program in cultural studies in Anglophone countries exists at the Centre (lately Department) for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), which was established at the University of Birmingham in England in 1964 under the directorship of Richard Hoggart. Initially part of the Department of English, the Centre became independent in 1972 during the directorship of Stuart Hall, whose term lasted from 1969 to 1979. Previously, Hall was the inaugural editor of Britain’s New Left Review. It was during the 1970s that over 60 Stencilled Papers and 10 issues of the journal Working Papers in Cultural Studies (founded in 1971) were brought out. This journal was absorbed into a CCCS-Hutchinson Company book series that published in the closing years of the decade the collectively edited Resistance through Rituals: Youth Sub-Cultures in Post-War Britain (1976), On Ideology (1978), Women Take Issue (1978), Working Class Culture (1979), and especially Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 (1980), which amounted to a CCCS reader, complete with an introductory account of the Centre by Stuart Hall. At the peak of this pioneering period in the 1970s, the Centre had 5 faculty members and 40 graduate students. By decade’s end other university programs in cultural studies were set up in England, primarily at polytechnical institutes. With the founding in England of the Cultural Studies Association in 1984, the whole contemporary movement toward establishing cultural studies in the academy attained a significant moment of maturation.

Stuart Hall/The New Yorker

During the mid-1980s the then director and longtime member of the Birmingham Centre, Richard Johnson, had occasion to publish in the United States a landmark manifesto, “What Is Cultural Studies Anyway?” which, following Hall, observed that two distinct methodological branches of cultural studies had developed at the Centre. The “culturalist” line, derived from sociology, anthropology, and social history and influenced by the work of RAYMOND WILLIAMS and E. P. Thompson, regarded a culture as a whole way of life and struggle accessible through detailed concrete (empirical) descriptions that captured the unities or homologies of commonplace cultural forms and material life. The “(post)structuralist” line, indebted to linguistics, literary criticism, and semiotic theory and especially attentive to the work of Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, and Michel Fucault, conceived of cultural forms as semiautonomous inaugurating “discourses” susceptible to rhetorical and/or semiological analyses of cognitive constitutions and ideological effects. While the members of the former group preferred to research, for instance, oral histories, realistic fictions, and working-class texts, seeking to pinpoint and portray private social “experience,” the latter group analyzed avant-garde or literary texts and practices, attempting to uncover underlying constitutive communal codes and conventions of representation. One especially influential American study blending culturalism and poststructuralism was Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), which depicted the history of Western research on the Near East as a massive disciplinary discourse structuring and dominating the Orient in a consistently racist, sexist, and imperialistic way that bore little relation to actual human experience.

In the United States widespread academic interest in cultural studies flowered particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, primarily among university intellectuals and critics on the left. In addition to pioneering programs being established, new journals appeared, for example, Cultural Critique, Differences, Representations and Social Text. The editors of Cultural Critique, founded in 1985 at the University of Minnesota, declared their representative objects of study to be “received values, institutions, practices, and discourses in terms of their economic, political, social, and aesthetic genealogies, constitutions, and effects” (Cultural Critique 1 [1985]: 5). Regarding preferred disciplinary modes of inquiry, they singled out a “broad terrain of cultural interpretation that is currently defined by the conjuncture of literary, philosophical, anthropological, and sociological studies, of Marxist, feminist, psychoanalytic, and poststructuralist methods” (6). On the advisory board of the journal were leading American and British Marxists, nonsectarian leftists, and feminists. In the North American setting, cultural studies aspired to be a new discipline but served as an unstable meeting point for various interdisciplinary feminists, Marxists, literary and media critics, postmodern theorists, social semioticians, rhetoricians, fine arts specialists, and sociologists and historians of culture.

During the 1980s, one of the more influential American literary proponents of cultural studies was the liberal Robert Scholes, who in Textual Power (1985) argued that “we must stop ‘teaching literature’ and start ‘studying texts.’ Our rebuilt apparatus must be devoted to textual studies…. Our favorite works of literature need not be lost in this new enterprise, but the exclusivity of literature as a category must be discarded. All kinds of texts, visual as well as verbal, polemical as well as seductive, must be taken as the occasions for further textuality. And textual studies must be pushed beyond the discrete boundaries of the page and the book into the institutional practices and social structures” (16-17). Over a period of 10 years, Scholes had moved from an apolitical and belletristic structuralism to an increasingly political “textual” (cultural) studies steeped in (post)structuralist thought, as revealed in his trilogy Structuralism in Literature: An Introduction (1974), Semiotics and Interpretation (1982), and Textual Power (1985). Typical of some other American university intellectuals advocating cultural studies in the 1980s, Robert Scholes evidently had little knowledge of the pioneering work done by the British school in the 1970s.

What most American literary intellectuals in the postVietnam decade knew about British views of cultural studies came mainly from the influential last chapter of Terry Eagleton’s highly popular text Literary Theory (1983) or occasionally from Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979) or sometimes from Janet Batsleer and others’ Rewriting English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class (1985), the latter two of which were works from the CCCS that gained limited notoriety in the United States. Cast in a poststructuralist mode and indebted to the Centre’s earlier Resistance through Rituals, Hebdige’s book, for example, illustrated how the spectacular styles of postwar subcultures of English working-class youths, particularly teddy boys, mods, rockers, skinheads, and punks, challenged obliquely social consensus, normalization, ideology, and hegemony, functioning through displacement as symbolic forms of dissent and resistance. “Style,” in Hebdige’s formulation, consisted of special disruptive combinations of dress, argot, music, and dance, often “adapted” by white youths from marginal black groups such as the Rastafarians and frequently subjected to cooption and mainstreaming by being turned into products for mass markets. As a scholar of cultural studies, Hebdige conceived “style” to be a complex material and aesthetic ensemble rooted in specifiable historical and socioeconomic contexts, possessing demonstrable semiotic values and ideological valences, all potentially subject to diffusion, routinization, and commodification by means of the agencies and institutions of established societies. From the vantage point of cultural studies, the aesthetic and the social, innovation and history, the avant-garde and the lower-class, creative words and common gripes, disco and assembly line, nestled together inseparably and inevitably.

It was not surprising that in the closing years of the 1980s a new journal, Cultural Studies, was launched under the guidance of an international editorial collective with the explicit goal of fostering “developments in the area worldwide, putting academics, researchers, students and practitioners in different countries and from diverse intellectual traditions in touch with each other and each other’s work” (1 [1987]: flyleaf). What this emergent internationalization indicated was the increasing expansion of research interest and commitment among university intellectuals and scholars to the work of cultural studies. At the same time, cultural studies scholars stepped up work on postcolonial cultures, focusing on deracinated subaltern subjects, heterodox traditions, and hybrid regimes scattered across the globe. Near the end of the century the diffusion of cultural studies appeared headed for increasing diversification into multiple branches and modes.

Janet Batsleer et al., Rewriting English: Cultural Politics of Gender and Class (1985); Cultural Studies and New Historicism, special issue, Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 24 (1991); Terry Eagleton, “Conclusion: Political Criticism,” Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983); Michel Foucault, La Volonté de savoir (1976, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley, 1978); Henry Giroux et al., “The Need for Cultural Studies: Resisting Intellectuals and Oppositional Public Spheres,” Dalhousie Review 64 (1984); Lawrence Grossberg, “The Circulation of Cultural Studies,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 6 (1989), “Cultural Studies Revisited and Revised,” Communications in Transition: Issues and Debates in Current Research (ed. Mary S. Mander, 1983), “The Formation of Cultural Studies: An American in Birmingham,” Strategies 2 (1989), “History, Politics, and Postmodernism: Stuart Hall and Cultural Studies,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 10 (1986, special issue on Stuart Hall); 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); Stuart Hall et al., Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79 (1980); Richard Johnson, “What Is Cultural Studies Anyway?” Social Text 16 (1986-87); Vincent B. Leitch, “Cultural Criticism,” New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (3d ed., ed. Alex Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan, 1993), Cultural Criticism, Literary Theory, Poststructuralism (1992), “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s,” American Literary Criticism from the Thirties to the Eighties (1988); Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (1988); Richard Ohmann, English in America: A Radical View of the Profession (1976); Jeffrey M. Peck, “Advanced Literary Study as Cultural Study: A Redefinition of the Discipline,” Profession 85 (1985); Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978); Robert Scholes, Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (1985); Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics (1987); Graeme Turner, British Cultural Studies: An Introduction (1990); Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (1978); Raymond Williams, Culture and Society, 1780-1950 (1958).
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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