Cultural criticism, cultural studies

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Cultural criticism, cultural studies

Cultural criticism, cultural studies: Critical approaches with roots in the British cultural studies movement of the 1960s, which both reflected and contributed to the challenges to tradition and authority represented by phenomena ranging from the antiwar movement to the emergence of “hard rock” music. Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded by Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart in 1964, quickly became the locus of the movement, which both critiqued elitist definitions of culture and drew upon a wide variety of disciplines and perspectives.

In Great Britain, the terms cultural criticism and cultural studies have been used more or less interchangeably, even as they have been used to refer to two different things: (1) the analysis of literature (including popular literature) and other art forms in their social, political, or economic contexts; and (2) the much broader interdisciplinary study of the relationships between a variety of cultural discourses and practices (such as advertising, gift-giving, and racial categorization). In North America, the term cultural criticism typically refers to work with a predominantly literary or artistic focus, whereas cultural studies is usually reserved for the broader type of analysis. In this entry, we adhere to North American usage and focus mainly on cultural criticism.

Early examples of cultural studies include various analyses of consumerism indebted to the work of Hall, French theorist Michel de Certeau, and British theorist Dick Hebdige, whose 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style paved the way for critics like John Fiske (Television Culture [1987]), Greil Marcus (Dead Elvis [1991]), and Rachel Bowlby (Shopping with Freud [1993]). These analyses address topics such as the resistance tactics employed by television viewers, the influence of consumers on rock music styles, and the psychology of consumer choice.

Early examples of cultural criticism include Mary Poovey’s book The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (1984) and Patrick Brantlinger’s Rule of Darkness (1988). Poovey viewed eighteenth-century novels by women in light of conduct manuals, ladies’ magazines, and the patriarchal system governing the ownership and inheritance of property. Brantlinger read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) in the context of late-nineteenth-century imperialism, racism, the goals of the Congo Reform Association, impressionism, popular romances concerning love and adventure, and “exposé literature” (mis)representing cannibalism in Africa.

Cultural critics examine how literature emerges from, influences, and competes with other forms of discourse (such as religion, science, or advertising) within a given culture. They analyze the social contexts in which a given text was written, and under what conditions it was — and is — produced, disseminated, and read. Like practitioners of cultural studies, they oppose the view that culture refers exclusively to high culture, culture with a capital C, applying the term to popular, folk, urban, and mass (mass-produced, -disseminated, -mediated, and -consumed) culture, not just to that culture we associate with so-called great literature. In other words, cultural critics argue that what we refer to as culture is in fact a set of interactive cultures, alive and changing, rather than static or monolithic. They favor analyzing literary works not as aesthetic objects complete in themselves but as works to be seen in terms of their relationships to other works, to economic conditions, or to broad social discourses (about childbirth, women’s education, rural decay, etc.). Cultural critics have emphasized what de Certeau called “the practice of everyday life” in L’invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life) (1980), approaching literature more as an anthropologist than as a traditional “elitist” literary critic.

Cultural critics have been as willing to write about Star Trek and Star Wars as about James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), a modern literary classic full of allusions to Homer’s epic The Odyssey (c. 850 B.C.). When they do write about Ulysses, they are likely to emphasize how it reflects the culture of Joyce’s Dublin, whether through advertising or journalism, movies or pub life. Similarly, a cultural critic might compare a classic such as Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) with one of its movie versions, whether Douglas McGrath’s period film Emma (1996) or a looser adaptation such as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), or view it in light of a popular genre, such as the comedy of manners. Alternatively, a classic might be seen as a reflection of common cultural myths or concerns; Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), for example, might be shown to reflect and shape American myths about race and concerns about juvenile delinquency.

Further, cultural critics are apt to use works to demonstrate the permeable nature of the alleged boundary between low and high culture. For instance, some cultural critics have noted that although William Shakespeare’s plays began as popular works enjoyed by working people, they were later considered “highbrow” plays that only the privileged and educated could appreciate. With the advent of film production, however, they have regained an increasingly popular audience, leading cultural critics in the 1990s to analyze the “cultural work” accomplished by Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1602) and Baz Luhrman’s 1996 resetting of Romeo and Juliet (1596) in contemporary, crime-ridden America.

In challenging traditional definitions of what constitutes culture, cultural critics sometimes contest traditional definitions of what constitutes the literary canon, that is, those literary works given special status by a given culture (classics or “Great Books”). Indeed, these critics generally critique the very idea that certain works are the “best” ones produced by a given culture. They seek to be more descriptive and less evaluative and to discover the (often political) reasons why one aesthetic or cultural product is more highly valued than another. This is particularly true when the product has been produced since 1945, for most cultural critics follow Jean Baudrillard (Simulations [1981]) and Andreas Huyssen (The Great Divide [1986]) in arguing that any distinctions that may have existed between “high,” popular, and mass culture collapsed after World War II.

Cultural critics have also employed the analytical procedures developed in numerous disciplines, focusing on human consciousness rather than a body of works assumed to reflect a given culture. They seek to understand and demonstrate that consciousness is itself largely forged by cultural forces. In attempting to understand this process, they have drawn on structuralist thought. Using a scientific approach and the linguistic theory of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, structuralists such as twentieth-century French theorist Roland Barthes and French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested that all elements of human culture, including literature, may be understood as parts of a system of signs. The ideas of French structuralist psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan have been particularly influential, serving as the theoretical underpinning for cultural critics who have sought to show how subjectivities — that is, our very identities — are produced by social discourses and practices.

Poststructuralist French philosopher Jacques Derrida has also influenced the development of cultural criticism and cultural studies. In De la grammatologie (Of Grammatology) (1967), Derrida provocatively asserted that “there is nothing outside the text.” In making this statement, Derrida refused to categorically distinguish world and text, simultaneously asserting that every human (worldly) product can be viewed as a text and that every text reflects and shapes the world we perceive. Cultural critics have used Derrida’s deconstruction of the world / text distinction, like his deconstruction of so many of the hierarchical binary oppositions we habitually use to interpret and evaluate reality, to erase the boundaries between high and low culture, classic and popular literary texts, and literature and other cultural discourses.

Several thinkers influenced by Marxism have also powerfully affected the development of cultural criticism and cultural studies. The French philosophical historian Michel Foucault perhaps had the strongest influence on North American cultural criticism and the new historicism, a type of literary criticism whose evolution has often paralleled that of North American cultural criticism. In works such as Surveiller et punir (Discipline and Punish) (1975) and Histoire de la sexualité (The History of Sexuality) (1976), Foucault studied cultures in terms of power relationships, a focus typical of Marxist thought. Unlike Marxists, however, Foucault did not see power as something exerted by a dominant class over a subservient one but, rather, as a complex of forces generated by the confluence — or conflict — of discourses. His interdisciplinary work acknowledged the viewpoints and histories of women and of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, groups seldom studied by those interested in culture with a capital C.

Prominent British — as opposed to Continental — influences include E. P. Thompson and Raymond Williams. Thompson, a Marxist historian and author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963), revolutionized study of the Industrial Revolution by writing about its impact on human attitudes, even human consciousness. He showed how a shared cultural view, specifically that of what constitutes a fair price, influenced crowd behavior, causing disturbances like the “food riots” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Williams, best known for his book Culture and Society: 1780—1950 (1958), argued that culture is living and evolving rather than fixed and finished, further stating in The Long Revolution (1961) that “art and culture are ordinary.” Although Williams followed the Marxist practice of viewing culture in relation to ideologies, he avoided dwelling on class conflict and class oppression, focusing instead on people and the way they experience and respond to the conditions in which they find themselves.

Because cultural criticism and cultural studies have been heavily influenced by Marxism (some contemporary cultural critics also consider themselves Marxist critics), it is important to be familiar with certain Marxist concepts, particularly those advanced by Walter Benjamin and Louis Althusser. Benjamin, a German Marxist best known for his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936), questioned the superior value placed on certain traditional literary forms that he felt conveyed a stultifying “aura” of culture and hailed the development of new art forms involving mechanical production and reproduction. He thus anticipated by decades the work of those cultural critics interested in mass-produced, mass-mediated, and mass-consumed culture, in forms such as photography, radio, and film that could render the arts a more democratic, less exclusive domain.

Althusser, a French Marxist, explored the relationship between literature and ideology in works such as For Marx (1969) and Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays (1971). He argued that ideology serves to reproduce society’s existing relations of production, even in literary texts and especially in popular works — a view many cultural critics reject. For instance, in “Marxism and Popular Fiction” (1986), Marxist cultural critic Tony Bennett used Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969—74) and another British television show, Not the 9 O’clock News (1979—82), to reject the Althusserian notion that all forms of culture are manifestations of capitalist ideology. Indeed, Bennett argued that “popular fiction” (books, films, television, etc.) often has the effect of “distancing” or separating the audience from — rather than rebinding the audience to — prevailing ideologies.

Most practitioners of cultural criticism and cultural studies, however, are not Marxists in any strict sense. Anne Beezer, who analyzed advertisements and women’s magazines, gave both the media she was concerned with and their audiences more credit than Althusserian Marxists presumably would. As Beezer pointed out, the same magazines that tell women how to please their men also offer women liberating advice about how to preserve their independence, and many advertisements advertise their status as ads, just as many people see them as advertising and interpret them accordingly.

Tania Modleski and Janice Radway undertook similarly complex analyses of paperback romance novels in Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (1982) and Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984), respectively. Radway, a feminist cultural critic who incorporates some Marxist ideas, pointed out that many women read romances in order to carve out a time and space that is wholly their own. Although many such novels end in marriage, the marriage is usually between a feisty heroine and a powerful man she has “tamed.” Radway’s reading is typical of feminist cultural criticism of the 1980s in that it is political but not exclusively about oppression.

The overlap between feminist and cultural criticism is hardly surprising, especially given the evolution of feminism into various feminisms, which typically focus on “majority” women of European descent, minority women in Western culture, and women living in Third World (preferably called postcolonial) societies. The culturalist analysis of value hierarchies has focused on class, race, gender, sexuality, and national origin; the terms of its critique have proved useful to contemporary feminists, many of whom differ from their predecessors insofar as they see woman not as an overarching category but rather as one of several contributing to identity, or “subject,” formation. The influence of cultural criticism (and, in some cases, Marxist class analysis) can be seen in the work of feminist critics such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and Gloria Anzaldúa, who stress the intersectional concept that although all women are female, they are something else as well (e.g., working-class, lesbian, Native American), a facet that must be considered in analyzing their writings.

The expansion of feminism and feminist literary criticism to include multicultural analysis has paralleled a transformation of education in general. African American studies, a form of cultural studies, has grown and flourished, with African American critics pointing out that the North American white cultural elite tended to view the oral-musical traditions of African Americans (jazz, the blues, sermons, folk tales, etc.) as entertaining but nonetheless inferior. To avoid being similarly marginalized, black writers have produced texts that, as scholar and critic Henry Louis Gates has noted, fuse the language and traditions of the white Western canon with a black vernacular and tradition derived from African and Caribbean cultures. Finally, interest in race and ethnicity has accompanied a new, interdisciplinary focus on colonial and postcolonial societies, in which issues of race, class, and ethnicity loom large.