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Cultural studies and what to do now

Updated Thursday, 29th January 2009

Jason Toynbee takes us into the world of cultural studies

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When I did my degree in Communication Studies the bits I loved best were in an emerging academic field called cultural studies. This had a far wider definition of culture than just the mass media. In cultural studies, culture was considered as a whole way of life, or to put it in an even stronger form, everything was culture.

The so-called ‘cultural turn’ was driven partly by a theoretical development that was happening throughout the humanities and social sciences. Academics began to take seriously the idea that rather than the world simply existing and then being reflected in language, the world and its objects were produced through language – as well as visual systems like painting and photography. In this new conception, then, what we know stems from what we think, say and represent rather than from the nature of the world ‘out there’. Once this step is taken, the characteristics of the particular culture we inhabit become hugely important, shaping our world. In fact, there is no longer one world, but as many as there are different cultures.

Punk at a demonstration [image © copyright BBC] Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC

Punk at a demonstration.

These developments weren’t only theoretical. Cultural studies was driven too by a radical politics, a sense that huge areas of culture, especially the popular, were treated with contempt and excluded from serious consideration. During the 1970s, pioneering research at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies showed how working class youth – mods, rockers and punks – actively engaged in making meaning and alternative values. A decade later this approach had been extended to the teenage girls who read Jackie magazine, and women viewers of soap operas. Today, all manner of popular cultural activities are the object of study. It would be hard to think of anything that people get up to outside work that hasn’t been redeemed by cultural studies.

I’m not so sure I feel the same way about the field now though. Most of all I doubt the political claims that are still implicit in much cultural studies work. For one thing the cause of ‘reclaiming the popular’ seems to have been won. Popular culture is widely acknowledged, and cultural studies academics have even become media pundits. For another, the politics of popular culture itself now seem rather weak. The recession brings this home. For instance, the democratic implications of reality TV shows like Big Brother look pretty shaky in the light of economic meltdown. Can popular culture really be said to be liberating when you’re out of work and your house has been repossessed?

The return of the material that we’re witnessing has a further aspect I ought to mention. Claims for cultural relativism – the idea that cultures create their own worlds of meaning and value – appear much less certain in hard times when millions of people across the world are facing the same problem, imminent poverty. In other words, the recession helps us to see that human beings have a common existence and face common problems. That doesn’t mean we should abandon the politics of cultural difference and recognition, but it does suggest the need to think in a much more universal way than cultural studies has done so far.

Lastly, I think we need to challenge cultural studies’ hard core constructionism – the idea that what we know is constructed through language and representation. If we’re to make sense of crunch culture we have to bring back reality. This can’t be a naïve version whereby we simply see things for what they are, but a conception of the real which acknowledges complexity, depth and the fact that while society is indeed produced by humans it is by no mean under fair and democratic control.

Anyway, next week I’m going to put my head between the lion’s jaws and make this argument at a symposium on Culture after the Crunch (244k PDF). The other speakers are cultural studies’ luminaries including my OU colleagues John Clarke and Tony Bennett. Grrrrr … .





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