What I like about cultural studies
Nick Caldwell, who kindly helped me out yet again with the site design has asked me to write a post on what I like about cultural studies, following up similar posts on John Howard and postmodernism.
This is actually not a hard one. I’m a big fan of Raymond Williams, who’s pretty much the founder of the whole field. In particular, I really liked his book Keywords. For a while I was running a regular ‘Word for Wednesday’ feature that was going to add up to a new Keywords, but it was one of those projects that got shelved temporarily, then abandoned indefinitely. Maybe I’ll come back to it one day.
More generally, I agree with Williams’ central idea that we should study our own culture in all its manifestations, rather than accepting the claims made for 19th century categories like ‘Art’ at face value, and distinguishing some particular subset of activities (defined primarily by class) as constituting ‘high culture’, while everything is is dismissed as prolefeed.
That’s not the same as abandoning standards of judgement, and saying that Mills and Boon is just as good as George Eliot. Like any other human activity, cultural products like books can be made well or sloppily, can be beautiful or ugly, can be original or mass-produced. But if you want to understand society, you need to look at the whole culture, not at those bits of it that enjoy high status.
In any case, there is no close linkage between cultural status and any sensible criterion of merit. Opera, for example, enjoys very high status, because it’s expensive and patronised by the upper classes, but much of it has so little to say about the human condition that the work of writing the words (the libretto) was farmed out to unknown hacks.
Even if you want to dispute claims like this, it’s clear that the argument can’t be carried on in terms of the kind of 19th century framework in which Art is a transcendent category of human experience which (for reasons that are never clearly explained) can only be manifested in one of a limited number of forms (painting, music, sculpture, literature and so on) and then only by approved practitioners.
Williams says all this much better than me. ‘Culture is ordinary… culture is not a collection of special objects locked away in a museum …every society has its own shape, purposes, meanings. Every society expresses these via its institutions, arts, and learning. Making a society means finding common meanings and directions. At the same time, society is made and remade in every individual mind. We note two aspects of culture: the known meanings and directions and the new meanings and directions which must be tested. These are the ordinary processes of human society/individual minds”
So, if there’s so much to like, why have I been so negative in my references to ‘cult-stud’. The things I don’t like are pretentious obscurantism passing itself off as ‘theory’ (the kind of thing the Sokal hoax exposed) and the kind of pseudo-leftism that purports to find Bugs Bunny or ads for Pepsi ‘transgressive’ and ‘subversive’. I’ve had my say about these things already (probably more than enough times) and I won’t repeat it.
I’ve never actually followed through the intellectual history that took cultural studies from Raymond Williams to the sorry spectacles we observe today. I’d be interested if there’s anyone among the readers who can help with this.