Cultural Studies - The Rise of Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Cultural Studies
The Rise of Literary Theory

cultural Studies first emerged as part of a tradition of British cultural analysis best exemplified by the work of Raymond Williams, whose Culture and Society: 1780-1950 (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961) mark the decisive point at which an Arnoldian idea of culture as a coherent and self-regulating tradition of serious artistic achievement cut off from historical conditions undergoes a radical transformation. These works were revolutionary in that they sought to analyze culture by way of a concept of TOTALITY that had been refined by new ways of conceiving the relationship between (to use Marxian terms) BASE and SUPERSTRUCTURE. Following Antonio Gramsci, Williams addressed the unique forms of cultural and ideological HEGEMONY that characterize advanced capitalist societies; he also pioneered the analysis of “structures of feeling” that create and sustain complex organic communities. Williams delineates “three general categories” in the definition of culture: 1) the “ideal, in which culture is a state or process of human perfection, in terms of certain absolute or universal values”; 2) “the ’documentary,' in which culture is the body of intellectual and imaginative work, in which, in a detailed way, human thought and experience are variously recorded”; and 3) “the ’social' definition of culture, in which culture is a description of a particular way of life, which expresses certain meanings and values not only in art and learning but also in institutions and ordinary behaviour” (Long Revolution 41). Each of these categories offers something of value to the critic, but none of them alone is sufficient. A theory of culture must take into account elements from each and respond to the complexity and significance of specific cultural organizations. Williams thus defines the theory of culture “as the study of relationships between elements in a whole way of life. The analysis of culture is the attempt to discover the nature of the organization which is the complex of these relationships” (Long Revolution 46).

With Williams, and British cultural studies generally, we see a movement away from an elitist and idealist vision of culture (of the sort found in Matthew Arnold and his successors), towards an alternative vision that recognizes the dynamism and complexity of late-capitalist society, the web-like connections that link subcultures and the various class formations within overlapping regional and national frameworks. Williams

used the phrase “structure of feeling” to describe the experience of living within these frameworks. A structure of feeling constitutes “the culture of a period … the particular living result of all the elements in the general organization.” It often “corresponds to the dominant social character” (LongRevolution 48, 63). In some ways, Williams anticipates Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu in his conception of culture as a dynamic network of relations and links, but in other ways he is limited by his organic conception of culture as a whole, as a living totality of elements. However, his consciousness of social DETERMINATION as a complex function of IDEOLOGY (rather than economics) meant that he, like Gramsci, would not make the mistake of those Marxists who saw a simple and mechanical relation between the productive base of society and super- structural phenomena. He was able, according to Stuart Hall, to counter “vulgar materialism and an economic determinism,” with “a radical interactionism: in effect, the interaction of all practices in and with one another, skirting the problem of determinacy” (23). In this, Culture Studies shared many concerns with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt school. (On ideology, see pp. 110-13.)

Richard Hoggart, a contemporary of Williams and, like him, a teacher of adult education, embarked on a similar project of revisionary cultural analysis in The Uses of Literacy: Changing Patterns in English Mass Culture (1957). For the early British theorists, the emphasis on mass culture entailed the analysis of new modes of cultural production, especially the popular media (newspapers, magazines, television, film), as well as patterns of cultural consumption, including individual behaviors as well as the audiences of new mass events and entertainments. The study of high-tech media societies using traditional methods of empirical sociology achieved disciplinary legitimation in 1964 with the foundation of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, which was pivotal in establishing the field initially in Britain (Turner 71-72). Hoggart became the first director of the Centre, and his emphasis on sociology and empirical research methods was designed to facilitate a rigorous, empirical study of cultural trends, practices, and institutions. By the late 1960s, it was clear that new media technologies would not only change the meaning and significance of culture; they would also change the function and value of cultural analysis. A transformed idea of culture required a transformed project of Cultural Studies, and Williams was not slow to see the significance of this general social transformation. His Communications (1967) reflects his recognition of the importance of new media technologies as well as his dissatisfaction with the concept of “mass culture,” which for him relied on an outmoded difference between high and low cultural productions.

Stuart Hall, who took over as director of the Centre in 1968, sought to legitimize not only new methods for defining and studying culture but also whole new domains of cultural production. Especially influential was Hall's work on critical Race Theory, ethnicity, immigration, and “diasporic identities,” which signaled a new direction in British Cultural Studies that intersected with the emerging discourses of Postcolonial Studies. Of special note is Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), by Hall and his colleagues at the Centre, which focuses on the way the British media linked crime to race. Dick Hebdige approached the study of culture from another perspective in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), a study of ethnic and musical subcultures (Rastafarians, “hipsters, beats and teddy boys,” glam and glitter rockers, and so on) and the function of style as a signifying practice. These works analyze cultural formations on their own terms, something which Hoggart, working within an older, humanistic, topdown model of culture, had failed to do (Turner 68). Iain Chambers' Migrancy, Culture, Identity (1994) pursued a similar critical goal. Hebdige and chambers were able to expand on Williams's interest in marginalized social groups by rethinking the idea of marginalization: a subculture is not an excluded or ignored class with a distinct identity and sense of solidarity; it is a contingent, often nebulous formation, characterized by a specialized activity, such as playing darts, nightclubbing, or reading fashion magazines, rather than by class consciousness. The emphasis on subcultures also highlights the fact that culture is not a homogenous and evenly distributed matrix of forces and relations. With these developments, the idea of culture became the problem of culture.

By 1980, when Hall published “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms,” cultural Studies was faced with a dilemma: Should it embrace claude Levi-Strauss's structuralist anthropology and analyze cultures as coherent, predictable structures? Or should it adopt the “culturalist” approach associated with Williams, an approach that stresses the dynamic quality of cultural formations? Early British cultural theorists were generally hostile to Structuralism largely because it ignored the social and cultural

determinations that shaped institutions, beliefs, and social practices. For this reason, the culturalist trend was more popular, especially after the “Gramscian turn” to the study of HEGEMONY, which was highly effective in shifting the emphasis in Cultural Studies towards “the PROBLEMATIC of relative autonomy and ’over-determination,' and the study of articulation” (Hall 32). Though British Cultural Studies tended to avoid Structuralist approaches, some theorists found the innovations of French Poststructuralism to be useful in critiquing received ideas about culture, language, and representation. On the whole, however, poststructuralist developments were not generally favored, in part because of Poststructuralism's AMBIVALENT relation to the absolute. As Hall notes: “Foucault and other post-Althusserians have taken [a] devious path into the absolute, not the relative autonomy of practices, via their necessary heterogeneity and ’necessary non-correspondence' ” (Hall 32).

But it is just this “devious path” that Catherine Belsey has attempted to demystify. Belsey was one of the first British cultural theorists to consider seriously the critical potential of Poststructuralism. Her controversial volume, Critical Practice (1980), takes to task the concept of common sense, “the collective and timeless wisdom whose unquestioned presence seems to be the source of everything we take for granted” (Critical Practice 3). Common sense, which forms the basis of what she calls “expressive realism,” presupposes an “empiricist-idealist interpretation of the world,” a form of humanism that constitutes the basis of traditional conceptions of culture (Critical Practice 6). “To challenge common sense is to challenge the inscription of common sense in language” (Critical Practice 43). Her study of the major poststructuralists helped to clarify their arguments and also to introduce into British academic discourse a practical tool for the analysis of texts and modes of reading. Her more recent work continues this project, but it also acknowledges an important trend in Cultural Studies. If “culture subsists as the meanings in circulation at a specific moment, the relations between separate genres or cultural forms might be as illuminating as the distinctions between them… . English is spilling over into the terrain of cultural studies, cultural history into the history of art and architecture” (Culture and the Real xiii). Belsey's analysis not only acknowledges this trend but submits it to a critique that serves as a reminder that culture is not as easily “materialized,” through language and discourse, as some theorists (e.g., Judith Butler) believe.


As Graeme Turner and Patrick Brantlinger have demonstrated, there are significant differences between British and US Cultural Studies. The British form emerged out of the sociological and materialist studies of people like Williams and Hoggart, who were associated with the Birmingham Centre. By the early 1980s, with Hall at the head of the Centre, new emphases on multiculturalism and the problems of immigration, exile, and diaspora brought cultural Studies into the postcolonial orbit. US Culture Studies from the 1950s to the ’80s was primarily concerned with the historical analysis of national characteristics (major political figures and parties, economics). By the mid-1980s, new forms of cultural critique were beginning to gain ground. One of the most important of these was the “writing cultures” movement in anthropology, which advocated a TEXTUALIST approach to the representation of culture. The influential collection of essays edited by James Clifford and George E. Marcus, Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (1986), built on the seminal work of Clifford Geertz in the 1970s. Geertz had argued that certain aspects of Balinese culture (e.g., the cock-fight) could be read and interpreted like a text. The contributors to Writing Cultures elaborated on this new mode of cultural analysis and turned as well to an investigation of the problem of ethnography itself, particularly its claims to scientific objectivity. A form of “cultural science” (as Turner puts it), textualist ethnography was primarily interested in the problems of translating and representing so-called primitive cultures, but it would ultimately have an impact on the analysis of Western cultures as well.

By the end of the 1980s, British and US Cultural Studies had converged on many theoretical and thematic points. iain Chambers and Angela McRobbie in Britain and Janice Radway in the US were focusing increasingly on popular culture (especially film), with a strong emphasis on the analysis of gender and sexual identity. McRobbie's Feminism and Youth Culture: From “Jackie” to “Just Seventeen” (1991), for example, explored subcultures from a feminist perspective, focusing on the unique experiences of young women, while Radway's Reading the Romance (1984) considered the importance of genre fiction in a critique of patriarchal culture. The intense interest in popular culture, especially alternative textual forms that involved individuals in sustained “fantasy” environments (e.g., film, rock and roll, the internet, video games), was part of a more general critique of cultural CANONS in literature, art, music, and elsewhere. Throughout the 1990s, as “discourse” became increasingly

prominent in the analysis of cultural “formations,” Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu offered to Cultural Studies important new paradigms for DISCOURSE ANALYSIS. In some cases, the category of culture is itself challenged, in part by challenging traditional notions of the “natural.” Donna Haraway's Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991) is a controversial instance of this radical revision of the culture concept. The importance of nature as a category that imbricates with and defines culture continues to define the limits of Cultural Studies, as is evidenced in Beth Fowkes Tobin's Colonizing Nature (2005), which examines the flora and fauna of tropical outposts of empire and how they contribute to our understanding of British culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Teresa de Lauretis and Laura Mulvey, influenced by poststructuralist theories of language and Lacanian Psychoanalysis, have made inroads into popular culture by focusing on the power of the male gaze in film and its role in defining culture as a space in which women are constructed as objects of desire and instruments in the fashioning of mas- culinist social institutions. (On Lacan, see pp. 158-9, 168-71.) Perhaps the most celebrated practitioner of Lacanian Cultural studies is Slavoj Zizek, whose Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (1992) considers a wide variety of subjects, including detective fiction, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, pornography, politics, and Postmodernism. More recent developments, especially the study of material culture, have focused on cultural objects and their production, consumption, collection, and preservation.

A common criticism of Cultural Studies is that it regards literary and cultural texts as pretexts for the study of culture as such. The text is therefore, as Richard Johnson argues, “only a means in cultural study.” it is “no longer studied for its own sake … but rather for the subjective or cultural forms which it realises and makes available” (qtd. in Turner 22). But trends in the US and elsewhere belie this claim, for in many analyses of popular culture there is an almost obsessive attention paid precisely to literary and cultural texts, including clothing, sporting events, jazz and popular music, film and video, advertisements, and “collectibles” of every description. Indeed, in the analysis of material culture it is precisely artifacts that count. Susan Pearce, who has studied museums and the theory and practice of cultural preservation, argues that the analysis of the way individuals collect objects has much to say about how material culture impacts broader issues such as gender and class. Yet the very inclusiveness that has opened up the idea of culture to “elements in a whole way of life” (as Williams put it) not traditionally regarded as cultural has led some people, in and out of the academy, to condemn Cultural Studies for overvaluing the ephemeral and insignificant. This condemnation, however, betrays a serious confusion about the social and analytical value of objects and the function and goals of Cultural Studies. The charge of insignificance rests on the assumption that objects in the cultural field are not (or should not be) of equal value. if any object is open to critique on the same terms, then all objects are of equal value - which is to say, they have no real value at all. However, the work of Cultural Studies theorists in the twenty-first century suggests that the issue is less one of regarding all cultural phenomena as equally valuable but rather of developing new modes of analysis suited to specific cultural practices and products. innovations of this sort have made Cultural Studies both popular and controversial and have significantly altered the study of literature.


Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1980, 2002. . Culture and the Real: Theorizing Cultural Criticism. London: Routledge, 2005.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms.” In Culture, Ideology and Social Process: A Reader. Eds. Tony Bennett, Graham Martin, Colin Mercer, and Janet Woollacott. London: Batsford Academic and Educational, Ltd., 1981. 19-37.

Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies. London; New York: Routledge, 1996. Williams, Raymond. The Long Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press; London: Chatto & Windus, 1961.