Reflections on Cultural Studies

To review, the achievements of the post-Frankfurt School approach to cultural studies, which have been treated in this chapter largely as elements within research associated with the Birmingham Centre (although the concepts have been used by many outside the Birmingham circle), are as follows:

First, there is an affinity with the disenfranchised in society. This is the legacy of the Frankfurt School that persists in cultural studies. Hoggart romanticized the working class; his students, with a more textured understanding of society, refined this into a concern for subaltern groups like teenage girls, punks, motorcycle gangs, skinheads and Rastafari-ans. This affinity with the disenfranchised extends to advocacy on their behalf. Cultural studies has embraced the view that scholarship should be engaged - both in its research methods (thus the shift toward ethnography) and in its desire for its analyses to move society in a direction that levels out existing power relations.

Second, they built a bridge between the field of literary criticism and the "texts" of popular culture. This is significant given that literary criticism arose originally as a variety of methods for reading the great literary masterpieces of Western culture, primarily for the purpose of discerning what profound insights they contained about matters of import for human life. Extending these methods to working-class novels, popular music, film, and magazines demonstrated an expectation that they, too, might contain profound insights. This had the effect of blurring many of the old distinctions between high and low culture.

Third, attention is directed away from the production of mass culture and toward the actual practices of consumption. The working class, the subjugated subcultures, all consumers of the culture industries, are not passive dupes. They exercise some agency in the manner in which they receive the commodities that are pressed upon them through the market. The forms this agency takes is complex and worthy of study.

Fourth, the concept of hegemony better captures the dynamics between the dominant and subordinate groups within a society than does the concept of the culture industries. According to the culture industries concept, the masses are infiltrated with an ideology that they absorb from popular culture without resistance and eventually internalize deeply enough that they oppress themselves through false consciousness. With hegemony there is a more realistic understanding of the struggle that occurs inside of popular culture, reflecting the ongoing negotiation, compromise, retrenchment and resistance that occur as the ruling classes seek the consent of the masses they seek to rule. It also recognizes that the values and ideas of the ruling classes can be affected for the better through this process of negotiation that occurs in popular culture and the institutions of civil society.

Fifth, the cluster of style, bricolage, poaching, and semiotic guerilla warfare that reflects the influence of Continental theorists on culture studies and was drawn together so effectively by Hebdige and his heirs, explains much that would otherwise make little sense. Style is a ritualized form of consumption, a reception of manufactured goods that empties them of their intended symbolism and invests them with different and often subversive meanings. This is done through bricolage, the creative, ad hoc improvisation that assembles richly encoded symbols systems out of poached materials, symbol systems that baffle outsiders, sustain the solidarity of insiders, and serve as highly effective "sites of resistance." At the extreme, this becomes what Eco has called "semiotic guerilla warfare," expressing itself in various forms of monkeywrenching and culture jamming.

Finally, the long drifting away from representational understandings of symbols and images and toward the funhouse of mirrors called the simulacrum is a fair description of how the image-generating propensities of popular culture appear to work. We grant an authority to images that hardly seems warranted given our knowledge of how easily they can be manipulated, and how their field of reference is more and more a thick deposit of preceding "visual quotes." The displacement of noumenal reality with the enticements of the hyperreal, which has accompanied the exuberant increase of simulacra, also helps us to make sense of the strange aesthetic that seems to prevail in how we choose to entertain ourselves and our flagging attention span for and easy disappointment with simple pleasures. While this explains much, it is also one of the most disturbing features of what cultural studies has uncovered in its reflection on popular culture.

Some important lines of critique have been lodged against cultural studies. Jennifer Daryl Slack and Laurie Anne Whitt have taken it to task for absorbing too much postmodern anti-theory and trying to sustain its advocacy for the disenfranchised without a coherent ethical theoretical basis for doing so. Without some reference to a reality that transcends appearances, there is little reason to assert that any human being is intrinsically valuable or worthy of respect.29

Thomas Frank has criticized cultural studies for becoming so enamored with the agency of the audience and with the consumer's powers of creative resistance that they have lost the greatest insight of the Frankfurt School: that autocratic moneyed interests can masquerade in a multitude of ways to ensure that their power is maintained. The sustained fascination of cultural studies with the guerilla tactics of consumers has drifted in the direction of a "market populism" that effectively conflates democratic freedom with consumer choice. Graduates of cultural studies programs have become so expert in the secret rituals of consumption, Frank argues, that they are being vigorously recruited by the culture industries themselves. In fact, there could not be a better preparation for overcoming the creative resistance of the underclass than an intensive program of studies in their strategies. Thus, more and more, departments of cultural studies are training the next generation of manufacturers of consent. "The point now," Frank writes, isn't "so much to celebrate 'resistance' as to work around it, preparing students to make commercials (like the Nike skateboarder spots) that flatter a subculture's paranoia or that use the more standard techniques of prude-dissing or let-you-be-you-ing to get, as the admen put it, under the radar."30

From a different angle, cultural studies is criticized for becoming so preoccupied with the subversive element in the use that subcultures make of cultural goods that the only attribute the discipline is capable of seeing in any artifact is the degree to which it is either liberating or oppressive. Commenting on a 1992 set of essays that has become the gold standard of the field of cultural studies in the US (Lawrence Grossberg et al.'s Cultural Studies), anthropologist Stefan Collini remarked on what he found to be the common thread:

The suspicion is that most forms of cultural activity are essentially a disguise for the fact that Somebody is Trying to Screw Somebody Else... hardly a page of this fat volume goes by without our being told that somebody who possesses some kind of power... is trying to "dominate," "suppress," "occlude," "mystify," "exploit," "marginalize" ... someone else, and in response it is the duty of those engaged in Cultural Studies to "subvert," "unmask," "contest," "de-legitimize," "intervene," "struggle against."31

Thus, there is a reductionistic tendency in much of cultural studies that would lead one to conclude that the only thing worth noting about popular culture are the political and economic power struggles that its production and consumption represents. Particularly under the influence of Michel Foucault, who is ubiquitous in cultural studies of the early 1990s, the discipline tended to adopt a method of deconstruction, which always led to the same conclusion: cultural practices are to be unmasked in order to reveal the spiraling conspiracy of power and knowledge that they facilitate. This leaves little room for considering other aspects of popular culture - for example, the aesthetic, theological, and moral aspirations it might contain.

These three criticisms are suitable warnings for various temptations and transgressions that one can find in the field of cultural studies. Nevertheless, they are not inevitable outcomes. The concepts and lines of inquiry I have summarized above are quite perceptive about the phenomenon of popular culture, and ought to guide any earnest effort to understand what kind of work popular culture does in a society. The trick is to heed the real insights of cultural studies into the operations of popular culture without surrendering to the cynicism, reductionism and aversion to transcendence one can find at its outer edges.

In an essay he wrote 8 years after the publication of his landmark book, Subculture, and in the aftermath of having suffered a mental breakdown, Dick Hebdige lamented the loss that the great celebration of the simulacrum, this relishing of life on the surfaces, represents:

There can be no more ... trawling for hidden truths, no more going behind appearances of or "against the grain" of the visible and the obvious In short, no more (Book of) Revelations. Instead what is left, to use another postmodernist key word, is a "fascination" with mirrors, icons, surfaces.32

Hebdige was commenting more generally here about the surrender of "the depth model" by so many of the scholars of cultural studies, including himself. Cultural artifacts were once believed to have teleological undercurrents entrusted to them by their creators that thoughtful analysis could reveal. To presume this and look for it is now off limits. Hebdige was genuinely lamenting this, criticizing himself and his colleagues for allowing this fascination with surfaces to crowd out all other considerations. Cultural studies is intent on overcoming depth with a flat world without a "behind... with length and breadth but no thickness," because it is only by banishing metaphysics that we will finally achieve a world that is free of debilitating distinctions and hierarchies.33

It is probably fair to say that in the current academy, only theologians are brazen enough to openly trawl for hidden truths, to persist in believing in revelation, to seek in their reading of texts some guidance regarding transcendent ends and purposes. Theologians, by trade, believe in a reality behind the appearances. To this bit of audacity, let us now turn.

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