Cultural Studies

Similar to the Frankfurt School in its Marxist leanings, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in Britain has been an important influence on the evolving discipline of theorizing about popular culture - arguably generating the most trenchant concepts for thinking about popular culture that are now in use.1 Founded by Richard Hoggart in 1964 (reportedly with money contributed by Penguin Books in appreciation for Hoggart's then recent assistance in their legal defense of the Lady Chatterly's Lover obscenity case), the Centre has launched the discipline of "cultural studies" and the careers of several significant culture critics: Stuart Hall, Paul Willis, Angela McRobbie, Dick Hebdige, and John Hartley.2

While Hoggart, in his landmark book, The Uses of Literacy (1957), adopted a Frankfurt-style nostalgic romanticism about the folk culture of the people, what he called the "lived culture" of the working-class -the culture that is found in the pubs, singalongs, fairgrounds, miracle cure advertisements, etc. - and lamented the banality of popular culture that was then pouring into Britain from the US, he did make some observations that became groundbreaking insights that were later developed by his colleagues in the Centre. Hoggart found a moral earnestness in the self-made folkways of the working-class that was then being threatened by the moral vacuousness of the "candy-floss" pop music, science fiction comic books, and crime and sex dimestore novels that were being imported from America following World War II. Referring to these imports, Hoggart wrote,

Most mass-entertainments are in the end what D.H. Lawrence described as "anti-life." They are full of a corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions. To recall instances: they tend towards a view of the world in which progress is conceived as a seeking of material possessions, equality as a moral leveling, and freedom as the ground for endless irresponsible pleasure.3

Despite this nostalgia and cultural pessimism, however, he did two things in this book that had a lasting impact on cultural studies. First, he experimented in the book with using the tools of literary criticism, originally developed for the analysis of classical literature, to interpret popular magazines, fiction, pop songs, and advertisements. He did this out of the conviction that popular culture contains and conveys insights about the meaning of life that these tools are designed to ferret out. Second, he argued that working-class people exercise some agency in their reception of the products of popular culture that are pressed upon them by the culture industries. "Working-class people," he wrote, "though they are being in a sense exploited today, at least have now to be approached for their consent. The force of environment and the powers of persuasion count for a great deal but are not irresistible, and there are many instances of the power of free action."4

This was a crucial departure from the Frankfurt fixation on the production side of popular culture, and opened up a whole new field for investigation: how do the consumers receive and make use of the magazines, movies, television shows, fashions and music that they are enticed to buy? While it may be true that "mass-entertainments" coax their audiences to equate progress with the acquisition of stuff, equality with moral indifference, and freedom with uninhibited hedonism, do these messages enter the consciousness of the consuming public unabridged? Following trends in literary criticism, Hoggart raised the possibility that as with great works of literature, "readers" of popular culture "texts" renegotiate the meanings that were intended by the texts' authors through the exercise of active reading. The meaning of the text is thus reworked in every act of reading. Consumption of the output of the culture industries can be expected to be just as selective and creative.

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