Thursday, December 16, 2010

"The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities" by Stuart Hall – article review and summary

Stuart Hall's "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities" is a retrospective account of the origins of cultural studies at the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. He immediately opens by noting that cultural studies are an interdisciplinary field, "a conjectural practice" which stems from different backgrounds and therefore should not be subjected to categorization ("cultural studies is never one thing"). The second aspect of cultural studies that Hall stresses is its critical nature, even and especially towards itself.

Stuart Hall argues that cultural studies have emerged out of a crisis in the humanities, from which most of the initial cultural studies researchers came.  The condescending tone of "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities" is apparent here with utterances like "most of us had to leave the humanities in order to do serious work in it". And the humanities are indeed, for Hall, the "bad guys" which deeply resented the appearance of cultural studies. By referring to the humanities' antagonism towards cultural studies Hall wishes to expose its false claims of being "an integral formation".

For Stuart Hall, cultural studies originated in the debate regarding the nature of social change in the affluent, mass media culture of postwar Britain. This debate, associated with the first New Left, regarded works like Richard Hoggart's monumental "The Uses of Literacy", "Culture and Society" by Raymond Williams and "The Making of the English Working Class" by Edward Thompson. These writers, like Hall, also came from marginal positions in the academy, such as adult education, an Hall says that their ways of deliberation came from that direct contact with "the dirty outside world".

In "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities" essentially heroically narrativizes the establishment of the cultural studies center at the University of Birmingham as a narrative of struggle. He colorfully describes hostile attitudes from both so-called "parents" of cultural studies, sociology and literature, along with material hardships of finance and location.

With cultural studies being the protagonist of Hall's narrative, the antagonists were the "Arnoldian project" manifested in the work of F.R.Leavis. Humanities back then were for Hall "a very controlled conversation among a very controlled number of people" who were asking each other "this is so, is it not?" without anybody having permission to say "no, it isn't".  But Leavis for Hall is not the complete "bad guy" for he was the first to take issues of culture seriously, and is therefore hailed as the herald of cultural studies. In other words, Leavis was asking the right questions, he was just giving the wrong conservative elitist answers. 
Hall savors the utter miscomprehension with which Williams The Long Revolution was received in the academic world. This is related to cultural studies' initial task of "unmasking what is considered to be the unstated presuppositions of the humanist tradition", its ideology and its alleged disinterested knowledge.
After negetivilly defining cultural studies against traditional humanities, Hall turns to discussing the positive work of cultural studies, and that was seriously theorizing the concept of culture as an object of contemplation. The relation between culture and politics was the first field to be concurred through "a series of raids on other disciplinary terrains" such as sociology, humanities and anthropology, giving birth to the cultural studies' tradition of interdisciplinary practice. 

A break from the traditional humanities also meant a break from its bibliography, and a here Hall notes that cultural studies could not have happened without the translation of European work conduct by the New Left Review. Without Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and others, cultural studies students wouldn't have had anything to read.

Hall notes that at the beginning of cultural studies as a academic movement it was impossible to teach it as a discipline or an established body of knowledge. Instead cultural studies started out as a cooperation of teachers and students that was manifested in the pedagogical methods of the Birmingham School for cultural studies. Hall also stresses the usefulness of cultural studies knowledge as politically engaged with the "out there in the dirty world". That, the criteria for work done in cultural studies was work on things "that mattered", things that arise from the researcher's experience, or in other words: Gramsci's notion of the "organic intellectual" and the transformation of knowledge into practice. As Hall puts it, cultural studies saw itself as a "tiny piece of a hegemonic struggle". Knowledge produced in cultural studies is not valuable on its own account, but has to be transmitted to society in order to be relevant. In other words, the practice of cultural studies is to bring theory and practice together.

As for the "crisis of humanities" spoken about in the title, Stuart Hall relates to what is known as "the standards debate", an attack on the free public education system and what is being taught in history and literature. The lack of basic English skills and knowledge of the English history among British students is being widely lamented about. This lamentation, Hall argues, is connected with Thatcherism, "a profound crisis of national identity" and the erosion of the nation-state. Under the threat of "others", Thatcherism as attempting to find out who can still be "English", and these "truly English" people are reduced to only a handful of Oxford scholars after Thatcherism excluded virtually everybody, including its own "uneducated" youth. And in order to fight off this sense of losing the English identity, a national curriculum and standard system is being imposed and the humanities are "invoked as the last bastion of the liberal defensive operation". England took to the Falklands in order to maintain its past as a possible future.  This identity crisis is exactly what cultural studies wanted to figure out when it first began, and so the crisis of humanities to which cultural studies owe its emergence is really the crisis of Brithishness. The project of cultural studies is to theorize these processes and find ways for the excluded to have their part in the national culture and community.

Still, cultural studies are a minor academic vocation, and while the humanities are not, they did take on some the agenda contested by cultural studies. On the other hand, while a lot of people nowadays talk the cultural studies "talk", not all of them also do the "walk" part of the equation by taking on the larger historical and social contexts. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

"Cultural Studies Vs. Political Economy: Is Anybody Else Bored with this Debate?" by Lawrence Grossberg – review and summary

Lawrence Grossberg's  "Cultural Studies  Vs. Political Economy: Is Anybody Else Bored with this Debate?" (1995) is a reply to Nicholas Garnham' attack on cultural studies in his "Political Economy and Cultural Studies: Reconciliation or Divorce?" article which ensued the cultural studies Vs political economy debate over the pages of Critical Studies in Mass Communication. Grossberg believes that one of the key points of disagreement between cultural studies and political economy is the weight the two approaches ascribe the economy as a determining factor of social formations. Grossbergs argues against the political economy reductionist approach which sees capitalism as a universal, unvaried structure with no variations in time and place.

Grossberg starts out by claiming that there is nothing novel about Garnham's criticism of cultural studies, and that this criticism arises from a misunderstanding of the relationship between cultural studies and political economy. Grossberg argues that cultural studies did not reject political economy, just the manner in which some political economists tended to their subject matter. On the other hand Grossberg agrees that cultural studies at times tended to over-celebrate culture while paying less warranted attention to the larger economic contexts.

 Political economy's main problem, in the eyes cultural studies according to Grossberg, is it’s ahistorical and universal perceptions which halt exactly at the point in which cultural studies begin their articulation of specific time and place societies. Grossbeg also claims that Garnham does to cultural studies what political economy does to society, that is reduce it from a complex to a black-and-white nature. Another aspect of Garnham's attack which Grossberg notes is his "critique by absence", that is criticizing a position for what it does not do or say. But this is also misplace for there has been significant work done in cultural studies regarding cultural production, reproduction and institutions, and not just consumption.

Grossberg continues to wonder what is the distinction, if there is any, between popular culture and dominant culture in the context of capitalism. He claims that cultural studies are engaged with people's experience, and the way to comply with and/or resist their subordination, an engagement which is crucial if they are ever to overthrow these power structures that are, admittedly, largely created by what political economy researches but is also sustained and reproduced by what cultural studies are concerned with.

"Political Economy and Cultural Studies: Reconciliation or Divorce?" by Nicholas Garnham –review and summary

 Nicholas Granham opens his "Political Economy and Cultural Studies: Reconciliation or Divorce?" by quoting Stuart Hall's reported break from traditional Marxist thought and the antagonism between Marxist political economy and cultural studies. Garnham's claim is that political economy is essential for cultural studies if its project is to be successful. He also argues that political economy is the source of cultural studies' critical stance. The affirmation of British working class in the works of the founders of cultural studies is situated in the formation of class structure produced by industrial and cultural capitalism. And therefore, Garnham argues, the struggle that cultural studies undertook was stemming from the wider social structure conflict. What Garnham subsequently argues is that for cultural studies to be a meaningful political project it cannot detach itself from its founding problematic, that dealt with by political economy. Cultural studies' developments, the growing interest in symbolic representation and taking on not just capitalism, but also gender and race issues, lead Garnham to ask of its current relation with political economy. Political economy sees all these as determined by material considerations of modes of production, ignored, so Garnham argues, by cultural studies. In other words, by distancing itself from political economy line of thought and subject matter, cultural studies are engaged with the secondary and less important and determining aspects of the social structure, and on the consumers' side instead of the producers'. Politics of identity, Garnham argues, not only secondary to the politics of labor, welfare and other economic issues.

Nicholas Garnham follows Marx in saying that every product produced must have a need which it satisfies, cultural products being no exception. Therefore cultural studies' sense of freedom in interpretation and consumption is justified only to some extent, an extent overly extended by cultural studies research.      
One of the ways in which Nicholas Garnham positions his attack on cultural studies is by understating it as a project assigned to "overthrowing domination" by assessing which cultural practices sustain the social order and which practices subverts it. Garnham further constructs cultural studies' interest in common culture not because it was a site of significant cultural activity, but due to the will to give the working class a "sense of importance" of their experience which Marxistically assumed to be stemming out of subordination. The second reason Garnham notes for cultural studies' interest in popular culture was the Frankfurt School project of explaining the mechanisms which inhibit a cultural overtake of the lower-classes (Stuart Hall, it should be noted, views the cultural studies turn somewhat differently).

These baseline questions necessarily hint, for Granham, at the Marxist notion of false consciousness, which he sees as claiming that only intellectuals, and not the blinded masses, have access to the truth. But cultural studies reject notion of false consciousness, which is for Garnham absurd.

Garnham also talks of cultural studies' view of education as means liberation of the subordinate classes and the role they assigned for themselves in it. However, cultural studies' sanctification of popular culture was in Garnham's eyes in fact harmful in the field of education. The attempt at liberation from power was foiled due to the obscurity regarding what that power was and where it comes from.

The main point of contention between cultural studies and political economy is according to Garnham that of the structure of power and domination. The difference is focus, while political economy reduces everything to issues of class, cultural studies tend to give an equal status to gender and ethnicity which precede the capitalist mode of production, but are, so Garnham argues, for the most part determined by class differences. Racial and patriarchal domination are founded on economic domination. Therefore dealing with representation (such as "black is beautiful") is meaningless without addressing structural economic issues which give rise to disadvantaging representations.  

The cultural studies – political economy debate

From its early stages cultural studies were under criticism from within the Marxist oriented agenda. This criticism asserted that cultural studies' preoccupation with representations, identities and so forth came at the expanse of addressing the economic structures of society and culture.

The debate heated up over a series of articles published in 1995 in Critical Studies in Mass Communication between Nicholas Garnham and Graham Murdock from the political economy side and Lawrence Grossberg and James Carey on the side of cultural studies.

The first shot was fired by Garnham in his "Political Economy and Cultural Studies: Reconciliation or Divorce?" where he accused the Birmingham School and their predecessors in favoring discussions of ethnicity and gender in favor of examining the more essential matter of economic factors which determine social stratification. Garnham did not argue that these issues were not important, but that they must be preceded by discussion of the economic aspects of culture. Symbolizing, signifying and representation are meaningless, he argued, if the material conditions stay the same.

Grossberg then commented by arguing that it is wrong to claim that cultural studies has disengaged itself from pursuing the economical power structures which underlie the cultural industry, referring to the work of scholars like Dorothy Hobson, Mike Apple, Cameron McCarthy and even Pierre Bourdieu which examined the relations of cultural production to social reproduction.

James Carey criticized another aspect of the political economy theory. He claimed that economical models aspire to absolutism which does not amount to the time-and-place intimacy of the work of cultural studies which do not simply deduce the nature of specific societies from abstract models.

Graham Murdock, from the side of the political economy, disagreed with Carey claiming that specific research like the one produced by cultural studies avoids discussing the essential political questions.
Garnham signed off the debate by again saying that the economical factor should precede any discursive discussion and that the work of the expert should have prominence over the wisdom of the common man so hailed by cultural studies. 

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Dick Hebdige: Subculture: The Meaning of Style – book summary

Dick hebdige's exploration of the punk subculture in his "Subculture: The Meaning of Style" has long been regarded as only of the classic and important milestones in the study of subcultures.

A very short summary of the development of a subculture according to Hebdige goes as follows:
Members of the working-class encounter daily hardships and alienation from the ruling hegemony (with Althusser's interpolation and Marx's class consciousness as the theoretical framework here). Younger generations are reluctant to suffer what their parents go through without protest. These youngsters develop distinct styles and practices with manifest their separate identity, condition and subversion. They encounter young black of Caribbean origin which have a much more historically grounded and formed reason for protest and adopt some of their feature in order to form "white ethnicity'. The media discovers the subculture (and thus essentially baptizing it) with a reaction that is typically moral panic.  The subculture expands while in the process losing its rebellious edge either by turning into another commercial consumer product or by the media humanistically exotisizing its members, rendering them as harmless "clowns", and now the mainstream hegemony can again return to its peaceful unthreatened state.

A more detailed summary of Hebdige's "Culture: The Meaning of Style" will account for his opening discussions and cultural studies oriented definitions of culture, reliance on Barthes semiotic thoughts on myths and signs, ideology from Marx to Volosinov and of course Althusser and finally hegemony as introduced by Gramsci.

In chapter 2 of "Culture: The Meaning of Style" Hebdige briefly discusses the emergence of punk culture in the mid 70's as a descendant of a linage of subcultures including the Teddy-boys, Modes, Rockers, Skin-heads etc. that circulated in the British working-class since the 50's. In chapter 3 of "Culture: The Meaning of Style" Hebdige takes special attention to the origins of Reggae and Rastafarian subcultures and especially its use of both music and style as a means of addressing and revolting against the African displaced and submissioned state. The immigration of Caribbean blacks to the UK has placed them in adjacent geographical and social positions with the British working class and a sort of limited bond began to emerge.

 Chapter 4 in "Culture: The Meaning of Style"  accounts for the nature of subcultures which preceded punk such as the Hippies and Beatniks who in a way idolized the black deprived condition and its rebel through music in the 40's and 50's. The same thing applied to the British Modes and even the Skin-Heads that in spite of their nationalistic and at times xenophobic rhetoric where nevertheless, so Hebdige argues, deeply influenced by the Reggae subculture. The next phase was that of Glam and Glitter Rock that went from engaging with the experience of young working and middle class youth to avoiding it by appealing to an aesthetics of avoiding the "real world" and escaping its different issues.

Punk was in a sense a return to politics which used the Rastafarian concept of 'dread' as inspiration. As Hebdige puts it, punk was a partial translation of black ethnicity, that is, white ethnicity which lacked the teleological salvationist aspirations and remained with a deep despair on account of England having "no future".

Part two ("reading") of "Culture: The Meaning of Style" by Dick Hebdige begins with a discussion of the role of subculture. Here Hebdige criticizes some earlier accounts of subcultures which lacked in his opinion the inclusion of the broader social, political and economical aspects of these phenomena.
Punk in Hebdige's eyes was an attack on conventional meanings which was in a sense a parody on moral panic which was made to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For this reason, the media plays an important role in essentially creating the subculture by unfavorably (and enthusiastically) addressing it.

Punk was a 'semantic disturbance" which violated conventional codes and meanings that served society in making sense of the world. Indeed, punk in many ways resisted any attempts to try and make "sense" out of it. However, Hebdige note two way of assimilation which diffuses punk's subversive potential, by turning it into a consumer product and by ideologically relabeling it as natural or otherwise exotic and in any case as meaningless and therefore harmless. 

    
The summary of the remaining chapters 7-10 of Hebdige's "Culture: The Meaning of Style" will be published here.    

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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Paul Gilroy: "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity" – review and summary

In his "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity" Paul Gilroy discusses the complexity of the concept of "identity". Gilroy heavily criticizes the essential discourse about blacks that is, so Gilroy asserts, prevailing in the academy. Gilroy stresses the constructive interaction of displaced ethnicities with other cultures which works to dynamically transform their sense of identity.

At the opening of "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity" Paul Gilroy argues that being both European and black requires a type of double consciousness (a term borrowed from Du Bois). This assertion alone already attacks exclusivist discourses of either/or that often characterize nationalistic stances. The dual identity of the western black is not composed of essential historical roots, for both their original identity and the European modern world have undergone transformation and reconfiguration over time. Gilroy claims that the subjective dichotomy of black and white, introduced in modern times, is far from a thing of the past, and they still continue to function by relating the concept of nationality with that of culture.

What Gilroy is essentially trying to say in "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity " is that the notion of hybridity goes both ways, and even the brutality of European cultures towards other cultures did not prevent them from being also influenced by their subordinates. Gilroy is trying to examine the impact that black thought had on what he calls the "cultural insiderism" on nationalistic thought, stemming from the notions of cultural differences. "cultural insiderism" "constructs the nation as an ethnically homogenous object", a construction that Gilroy aims at challenging by noticing how racial politics transverse and reform European identity.

"Cultural studies in black and white"
In "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity" Paul Gilroy is also critical of his own discipline of origin, cultural studies which contain, so he claims, a "secondary ethnic aspect" and an association with England and the ideas of Englishness which lead to an "ethno-historical specificity" of cultural studies. The nationalistic inclinations and ethnocentric modern traditions which viewed the state as a distinct cultural, economic and political unit are according to Gilroy in need of some serious modification. Traditional thought (from all sides) sees black and white relations in England as a collision between fully formed and distinct ethnic identities.

What Gilroy is essentially saying is that present day racism is the inheritance of the modern conception of the nation-state as established by and for a homogenous culture, and that those modernistic, Enlightenment lines of thought are still very much present in contemporary cultural studies, sociology and other social sciences. Esthetics is also a matter in which modern day society also still entertains residuals of the Eurocentric efforts to articulate what is universally beautiful.

As hinted by the title "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity", Gilroy argues that taking about "English blacks" of "American blacks" disregards the communal experience of slave trade victims which centers around the Atlantic ocean. He therefore suggested talking about the "black Atlantic" culture which ties the identities of the African diaspora. Taking the black Atlantic as a single unit, Gilroy suggests, transcends nationalistic, consequently ethnocentristic, paradigms which plagued British cultural studies.

Paul Gilroy views the black Atlantic as "framing the doorway" of blacks' double consciousness. He uses the historic example of Martin Delany to illustrate this point while also addressing the tension between "rootedness" and a view of identity as a mediated process. Gilroy sees Martin Delany's writings as a mixture of pan-Africanism and Enlightenment themes, and while Gilroy thinks Delany's Christian motifs to be "discordant" one might argue that this sits well with the hybridity that Gilroy celebrates. What interests Gilroy in regards to Martin Delany is also his travelling across the Atlantic as well as his self proclaimed scientific stance with accompanied his political abolitionist opinions. Gilroy sees Delany as one who appropriated 18th century philosophical notions into his ideas of racial integrity and citizenship. Delany, who compared the fate of blacks with that of the Jews and their ambitions with those of Zionism, dreamt of a black national state. 

Gilroy's "black Atlantic" is found in Delany's vision of the alliance between English capital, black American intellect and African labor power. Gilroy also finds in Delany's writings evidence of "the inner dialectics of diaspora identification", with Delany finding out during his visit to Africa that he is as much, maybe even more, African-American than he is purely African, and as Gilroy notes: "the ancient, ancestral home would simply not do as it was". As much as Delany wanted to elevate Africans, he also wanted to enlighten and modernize them. Delany's reference to Africa as the "fatherland" indicates his tying together of nationality and masculinity.

Black Politics and Modernity
If we consider black movements is the past two centuries as political opposition movements, Gilroy's question is what exactly are they opposing?  This while taking into account Du Bois's double consciousness of being both inside and outside the western world? Gilroy relies on Delany to illustrate how the intellectual heritage of Euro-American blacks effected the conceptualization of nationality within the black discourse. Gilroy distinguishes two perspectives towards this issue, the essentialist and the pluralist, though he argues that both are variants of essentialism, one being ontological and the other strategic. The essentialist, or ontological, point of view is a frustrated one in face of the cultural "contamination" of the black diaspora so widely immersed in the west. The pluralistic approach sees blackness as an open signifier and related to its inner divisions like class, gender, etc.

Gilroy looks at Hip-Hop music as a type of fusion, not just in musical terms but also in class and politics related instances. Despite its heterogeneous origins and function,Hip-Hop, Gilroy argues, as become as symbol of racial authenticity. But like politics and thought, aesthetics also accentuates the hybridity of and fragmentation of the black subject which is now further conflictualized by questions of class and gender roles.
On the other hand, Gilroy asserts that "black musical expression has played a role in reproducing what Zygmunt Bauman has called a distinctive counterculture of modernity". The complex nature of black music offers the means to go beyond the tensions of essentialism and absolutism Vs. pluralism and constructivism. Black music, Gilroy argues, opposes the world as it is with the world as the racially subordinate would like to see it, thus denying theodicy. Gilroy notes two functions of this music, one of "fulfillment" which demands of modernity to be all that it promised to be, and the other utopian which presents alternatives for the modern vision of society.  

Paul Gilroy: "The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity"

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Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity by Stuart Hall – article review and summary


In his "The local and the global: globalization and ethnicity" Stuart Hall sets out to reexamine some of the main questions regarding globalization and its cultural, ethnic and identity related contexts. As an Englishman, Hall examines globalization from the British point of view for which globalization is not a new phenomenon, however one that today bears rather different characteristics than it did in the time of the British Empire. And this is one of Stuart Hall's main points in "The local and the global: globalization and ethnicity" were he claims that the identity of Englishness was formed in the wake of England dominant position in a world that was dominated by nation-states through imperialism.  This identity, Stuart Hall claims, is an exclusivist one which stems from a certain historical moment in which British discourse saw England and the English as ruling and commanding virtually anyone who was not English. All subjects of the British Empire were placed in the position of the "other" in relation to the British eye which saw itself as central. Hall notes that the "British eye" was very good at observing everything else but failed at acknowledging the very fact that it was itself looking at something. This positioning eye positioned everything else in relation to the British, and by knowing what everything else is, it knows what it itself is not.

Hall finds the British identity to be a masculine one. Being English means being an Englishman. In addition, it is quite the demanding task nowadays to convince the British that they are "just" another ethnicity with its own indigenous characteristics, like any other ethnicity. The British ideology is presenting itself as natural, unified and static. Identity, however, is neither one of these and is in constant need of a contradiction in order to stabilize itself.
    
However, in the current age of globalization British identity is challenged by a number of factors and processes. First the demise of England's economic stance that went from being the first industrialized country to being one of many and not the first among those many. The 70's economic crisis opened the global markets to new game rules of capital and technology. The new relations of production in the age of globalization links developed countries with developing ones and transforms relationship structures between different countries and societies. A second consequential factor which fragments the traditional British identity is the massive work immigration into England. Englishness has been decentralized both by the flow of capital outwards and the flow and work immigrants inwards, the result of England's long rule over third-world countries. An additional attribute of present day globalization is the growing international inter-dependency, for example by the growing constraints of supra-national organization and the loss of complete local autonomy. The final factor Stuart Hall mentions in this respect is that of environmental global effects which threaten England, like all other countries, without the possibility of effecting or stopping them. So the British national identity is growingly being eroded.
   
But the decline of the nation-state does not mean its disappearance, for Hall argues that the crisis of globalization has led her to be more exclusivist and to seek new and narrower definitions of Brutishness (i.e. Thatcherism) which will determine who is "a part of us", thus leaving a great many people and identities outside. That is to say, the decline of the nation-state in the age of globalization has led to a more radical and aggressive form a racism which attempts at isolating elements of the "authentic" culture from elements which "don’t belong".
    
The response to decline of the nation-state under globalization goes according to Stuart Hall in two directions, over and under and nation-state, to the global and local. These responses are the result of the nature of globalization which is characterized according to Hall by a "global mass culture" that includes the continuation of western English speaking cultural media products, but now it is no longer the Queen's English but rather English is a variety of tongues. A second effect of this global mass culture that Hall notes is the cultural homogenization it introduces. Contrary to what is widely thought of globalization, it does not shape the world in the image of England or the United-States, but is forging it together from the outlook of the English speaking west. The western hegemony is not trying nor succeeding in eliminating other cultures, but rather to operate on them parallel to their own unique characteristics. The logic of capitalism is not unified and does not transform more and more regions into its counterparts, but is working within the compass of other forces. The world under globalization, in other words, is not so much unified as much as it is decentralized.  

Stuart Hall mentions two manners of coping with globalization on the local level: a return to nationalism and an attempt to contain variation. One of the most important characteristics of the present age is the acknowledgment of the marginal in the central cultures, and marginality which has paradoxically turned into a center of power which tells its stories from the bottom-up, not top-to-bottom. Simultaneously we see a reaction to globalization in the form of returning to the local, community and neighborhood which remain as a concrete place when everything else is turning more and obscure. The strive for such a basic identity is what Stuart Hall terms "New Ethnicity" which can be in itself a type of fundamentalist mini-nationality. And like the unconscious perspective of the old Englishness, so does the new ethnicity strive to position and establish the world surrounding it and everything which is different.     


The Local and the Global: Globalization and Ethnicity by Stuart Hall – article review and summary

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cultural Studies' primordial soup: 1950's working class England and some influences from the continent


One way to understand the inception of Cultural Studies is to take a close look at the historical and social circumstances surrounding its birth in the 1950's.

1950's british economy was turning more and more 'affluent' with unemployment decreasing and with the working-class joining the consumerist celebration which promised to better everyone's life with more and better products. The disjuncture of blue and white collar workers was slowly diminishing both in the economical sense and the geographical sense with new housing programs. But also meant the fragmentation of the traditional working class community life which was replaced by submission to what the Frankfurt school termed as the "culture industry". This led to the perception of culture as a dynamic process with a direct, previously denied, relation to politics. This led the first cultural studies researchers to examine culture in terms of its political functions. Antonio Gramsci's constitutive term of "hegemony", invisible domination, was widely influential and was turned into cultural studies' prime area of concern. Cultural studies began then to examine the way certain discourse formations were functioning and gaining dominance in society to the point of presenting themselves as ultimately "right" or "natural', what is known, following Foucault, as "articulation". With society losing its "natural" characteristics, hegemony as a culturally formative function was subjected to the critique of cultural studies.

Cultural studies' initial tendencies were towards semiotic analysis of cultural products and texts, the production, circulation and function in society. Another rising analytic tradition in the 70's cultural studies was that of structuralism and the examination of individuals as constructs of ideology and cultural formation. Ideology, following Althusser, was seen as the mechanism which reproduces the cooperation of subaltern classes with the exploitative capitalistic relation of production by means of "naturalizing" what is essentially a human contingent assembly of socio-political relations. Ideology according to this view is a mirroring function which in a sense "tells" the individual who he is, and consequently, how he should behave.  

When these continental theories met with the aforesaid changes in the English working class life, cultural studies found their initial steps as a both academic and politic movement. But these forms of critical engagement did not last long, and cultural studies soon moved on to reject some of the ingredients of old Neo-Marxist French thought such as Althusser, as described in the following articles.



Aside from Gramsci, theoretical legacies inherited from the continent such as those of Althusser of Foucault did not gain much heed on the British side of cultural studies for their too theoretical, too deterministic tendencies which were quelled with the little more "down to earth" tendencies of cultural studies. That being said, the structuralist as well as poststructuralist traditions definitely left their mark on cultural studies, especially the notion of meaning as constructed out of difference with other meanings and not by a direct referential relation to reality. Such notions were developed into an interest in the function, as well as evolution and mutation, of cultural signifiers that were perceived in their polysemity. Cultural studies also saw the "play of signs" as essentially a political one in the form of no less than a struggle over meaning.     

What is cultural studies anyway by Richard Johnson – article review and summary


In his 1986\7 article "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?" Richard Johnson tries to address his title question in a sort of a mix between a descriptive and normative strategy. At the beginning of his article it seems Richard Johnson is equating the question "what is cultural studies anyway?" with the question of "should cultural studies aspire to be an academic discipline?". This question is important because Cultural Studies reject, in a sense, any attempt to codify its methodology for its "mix and match" inclinations and interdisciplinary traditions. Richard Johnson stresses criticism as an attitude essential for cultural studies as something that evades methodological codification. Johnson reminds us that cultural studies in many ways were born when literary criticism turned its attention to virtually any human product which bears meaning, that is the historical extension of the denotation of "text".

Richard Johnson shows how developments in cultural studies coincide with similar trends in history which began to show interest in mass culture. Marxism, obviously, is mentioned as claiming fatherhood of cultural studies, though if anything this discipline is founded on harsh criticism towards old fashioned "red" thinking, with the formerly hailed Stalin now taking all the heat. And on the corpses that ran through the Gulags there arisen a new strand of neo-marxism in the 70's. in short, cultural studies were in a sense formed when Althusser and Gramsci were translated into English.

Therefore, Richard Johnson proceeds to ask about the inheritance of cultural studies from Marxism and he suggests a triad of premises. Cultural studies' first inheritance from Marxism is the notion the "cultural processes are intimately connected with social relations" (p.39). The second premise suggested by Johnson is that "culture involves power and helps to produce assymmetries in the abilities of individuals and social groups to define and realise their needs" (ibid). the third is that "culture is neither an autonomous nor an externally determined field, but a site of social differences and struggles" (ibid). Another Marxist contribution to Cultural Studies, Johnson notes, is the work of The Communist Party Historians which saw everyday common life as their object of interest.    

Richard Johnson also traces other influences that contributed to the rise of Cultural Studies that converged at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural studies (CCCS) such as the literary criticism of F.R.Leavis that first related the conventionalist nature of "High" culture and his successors, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart which have shifted the discussion of art-society relations to "lower" culture with which Cultural Studies have been preoccupied ever since. 

"Production" is of course to a key concept in Cultural studies and Richard Johnson's attempt to address to question of "what is cultural studies anyway?". For him, what is unique for Cultural Studies and Birmingham school (CCCS) is the treatment of production in the wake and context of larger social. Cultural and political processes and especially the space and time of both production and consumption, with latter not necessarily determined by the former.   

Richard Johnson is not opposed to formalist textual analysis methods residues in cultural thought as some other more postmodern thinkers. Though he does claim the form alone does not determine function. He notes that I understand formalism negatively, not as abstraction of forms from texts, but as the abstraction of texts from the other moments" (p. 62). The approach which Johnson terms Advanced Semiology has led to notion of narrative creating a stance or subject position towards them in the reader (narratives or images always imply or construct a position or positions from which they are to be read or viewed  (p.66)). However he argues that such subject positions are generated only be formal features (such a "readable" or "writeable" in Barthes's thought) but also by the somewhat unforeseeable idiosyncratic circumstances of their consumption. He notes that "the text-as-produced is a different object from the text as read" (p.58)

What Richard Johnson seems to be after is some formation or formulation of a paradigm for Cultural studies that while guide its curse, questions and modes of answering, what is the Althusserian view might be termed "problematic", thus enabling to view at "if not as unity, at least as a whole" (p.41). he also takes notice of the field's inherit left wing politics while noting that "[cultural studies] form a part of the very circuits which it seeks to describe" (p.53).

In his final maneuver in "What is Cultural Studies Anyway" Richard Johnson sums up the three prevailing approaches for Cultural Studies: production based-studies, text-based studies and studies of lived cultures. Each of these approaches isolate a different moment in the life cycle of a cultural object, thus missing out on the big picture. Therefore Johnson sums up by saying that "It is not therefore an adequate strategy for the future just to add together the three sets of approaches, using each for its appropriate moment. This would not work without transformations of each approach" (p.73)


Johnson, Richard. 1986/7. "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?". Social Text 16: 38-80.

"Reinventing Cultural Studies: Remembering for the Best Version" by Richard Johnson – article review and summary


In his 1997 "Reinventing Cultural Studies: Remembering for the Best Version" Richard Johnson returns to his programmatic pursuit of Cultural Studies which he first started a decade before in his "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?". This time Richard Johnson is after what he calls the "best" version of Cultural Studies. While "best" might (and should) sound suspicious to the cultural studies trained ear, what Richard Johnson is going for is abandoning the view of Cultural Studies as intergraded discipline in favor of treating it as a "process" occurring in the interdisciplinary membrane and the academy's relation to politics. "reinventing Cultural Studies" for Richard Johnson is far from a one-time plea for reforming the field, it is rather a descriptive and at the same time normative insight at how the field of Cultural Studies should and is conducting itself constantly.

Johnson is equating "reinventing" with "remembering". And while nostalgia is without a doubt a theme in "Reinventing Cultural Studies", Richard Johnson also has some currently relevant questions about his beloved field, which is not a field at all, so he argues. Instead Johnson takes a view on Cultural Studies as being "marginal" in the academic sphere. This is for a few reasons, starting with Cultural Studies' origins outside the academy in working-class adult education. In other words, the cultural formations which interest Cultural Studies and also present in its identity as an academic movement (with working-class, women, black and gay reaserchers). Another thing that contributes to Cultural Studies' troubled relationship with the academy (and with itself as an academic venture) is its age old suspicion of any "academic knowledge". Another part of Cultural Studies' identity that Richard Johnson mentions is its affiliation with student movements in the 70's. 
This means that political activism has always been an inseparable part of Cultural Studies. The legacy of 1968 has left its mark on Cultural Studies for decades to come, and this is something that for Johnson sets it apart of the academic world which for the most part sought to dull these effects. One major characteristic of Cultural Studies that Johnson mentions in this context is the highly democratic fashion in which Cultural Studies departments, especially CCCS, functions. The work of research and writing subgroups free from staff agenda is for Johnson one of the key features of this democratic nature of Cultural Studies, for its decentralizing effects while still sustaining a common language. All this, Johnson argues, has been somewhat lost over the years, and this is what he wants Cultural Studies to remember in order to constantly reinvent itself.

Cultural Studies and the academia
Cultural Studies' interest with "lived" experiences of social and cultural formations which go hand in hand with transforming them is what made it possible for the CCCS to coexist with the academy which it criticized for being paternalistic, hierarchic and individualist. Still, Johnson does not fail to mention the Cultural Studies view that "academic institutions are exclusive and oppressive because they have institutionalized the agenda and preferences of particular social groups and gave them the universal or general knowledges and practices" (p.456). Here Cultural Studies is parted with the academy for its race, gender and class diversity of students and teachers, thus avoiding discriminations.  
This "general" or "universal" forms of knowledge that Cultural Studies go against are replaced with "commonsense" or "popular" takes of cultural reality. In "common" Johnson is referring to the "alternative": subcultures, women, ethnic minorities, queer etc. this approach yielded some problems for Johnson, problems he claims are characteristic for Cultural Studies, with its awareness of politics and tendency to route for the underdog turning into inner conflicts and ambivalence for "insofar as cultural studies becomes a representational space for marginalized positions, it cannot be comfortable in the academy, old or new style" (p.459).  This means that practitioners of Cultural Studies often have to compromise academic ambitions for other political agendas and goals. On the larger scale, Cultural Studies have to reconcile their often subversive tendencies with the need for acceptability, respect and most importantly funding.   

Cultural Studies and politics
So what comes first for Cultural Studies? Is scholarship more important that politics? Or is it the other way around? This is one of the main questions facing Cultural Studies, manifested in the tension between theory and practice. Richard Johnson's answer is that the academic world is in itself a site of political struggle, thus qualifying Cultural Studies with both its contradicting natures. For him denying the power of academic politics is in fact succumbing to it. However the academic pressure for isolating scholar work from other occupations, especially political one, is something Cultural Studies obviously can't live with and must struggle against. So Cultural Studies faces a double front – one within the academic world and one in its ties with "actual" political battles.

The social/textual split
Cultural Studies were never too fond of boundaries, not ones between disciplines or between academy and other political sites.  With Cultural Studies situated somewhere between the humanities and social sciences the "textualization" of culture becomes a problem. A tension between the literary and sociological paradigm is what Johnson sees as the manifestation of this problem. These paradigmatic differences are related by Johnson to "different moments in the circuit of cultural production and consumption" (p.463). It seems two traditions are converged in Cultural Studies, that of the formalist structural/poststructural "textual" type and that of the more socially inclined legacy of Marxism.

Johnson describes the transformation of text from an end of analysis to a means for engagement with larger historical cultural formations. But the textual realm is not sufficient and very much limited if other "sites", such as economy for example, are not taken into account. However, when an expansionist view is taking to the question of what is "text" for Cultural Studies and the Derrida notion of "there exists nothing outside the text" is adopted, things begin to be more closely fitting to Cultural Studies' agenda. Language, consequently, is not just words, written or spoken, it is also visual representations that are treated as text, behavior, taste, design and virtually everything human can be "read" with the aid of linguistic terminology such as "discourse".

Richard Johnson addresses the eclectic methodological tradition of Cultural Studies by simply stating that "there is no available mapping of methods in Cultural Studies – virtually no methodology in that sense" (p.467). This leads to Cultural Studies' ability to transgress traditional discipline boundaries and also turn its critical attention to disciplines themselves while not having to adhere to methodology determined truth claims. Therefore Cultural Studies is often satisfied with discussion arousing criticism, not claims of truth of concrete knowledge. On the other hand, Johnson makes sure to note the dangers of not only amateurism but also old-school amateurism with a favorable social stance. In addition, Johnson takes special consideration to structure following the tradition of Gramsci and Foucault, with "structure" often translated into "relations of force". The multi- or parallel-structuring of societies allows for the creation of "condensed" cultural objects which bear meaning that relates to numerous cultural phenomena that can be analyzed through it. Johnson sums up by stating that "the familiar issues of "representativeness", "reliability" and "validity" do not altogether disappear here, but they certainly have to be reformulated" (p.469).

Limits of the textual turn
Johnson, however, is not completely at ease with the textual turn in Cultural Studies. One reason for this concern it that although everything is text, what is usually being read in Cultural Studies research is in written form and oftentimes the cannon, thus recycling dominant forms. This leads to what Johnson terms the "positionalities" of Cultural Studies researchers which determine the type of works they produce. These positionalities might tend to reconfirm or universalize certain points of view and theoretical frameworks.  
Another problem with textuality that Johnson mentions is that of political agency, and the difficulties of accounting for it in structural and poststructural theories. In the relation between means of production and conditions of production, Cultural Studies are having a hard time in accounting for the actual act and actor of producing without moving away from the literary frameworks and towards more materialistic approaches.
Johnson states that Cultural Studies should not aim at overtaking the whole academic field by bringing down disciplinary boarders, it should, however, exist in the interdisciplinary membrane and "occupy thresholds" between disciplines and paradigms.

Cultural Studies' relation to other sites
Cultural Studies, as a deeply political movement, interacts with non-academic agendas by more or less importing questions and issues and exporting ways of thinking about them. Therefore Cultural Studies should not just accumulate knowledge for its own sake and interest. Johnson Believes that Cultural Studies have for the most part failed, or were insufficient in this respect of extra-academic political involvement that was fulfilled mostly with graduates that moved on to become politicians of journalists.
Johnson notes that it is hard to assess the overall impact of Cultural Studies on culture itself, but he believes that it "had more effect on popular consciousness and practice than we allow ourselves to believe" (p.475). Another question posed in this context is whether Cultural Studies are a sort of supportive by-product of political movements? For Johnson there is no simple answer, nor is there an answer to how much Cultural Studies actually benefited those that is sought to help.

In the last part of "Reinventing Cultural Studies: Remembering for the Best Version" Richard Johnson talks about his disappointment from the Cultural Studies' success in influencing popular politics, mostly notably economic policies which have not turned less capitalist over the years since the start of Cultural Studies. The struggle here is against reductionism of questions of power to economy, thus, for Johnson, "a central question for me today is how hegemonic groups and institutions in the world – mainly male and white –are sustained in the impossible belief that the policies they pursue can ever create a viable, livable social and natural world" (p. 478).  One interesting question is this respect is who should carry out the needed reforms in the political and social workings of power, and more specifically, where should Cultural Studies operate, is it in political parties and organizations, or maybe the para-political field of journalism, NGO's, education etc.?. After ruling out the academy as an end in its own rite, Johnson also refutes the need of Cultural Studies to enter the political arena of formal parties. Rather, Cultural Studies for Johnson should operate in education, social movements.
              

Hayden White – The Historical Text as Literary Artifact – article summary and review


The form of narrative has traditionally served as a way of delivering events with a story. The historical narrative is often perceived as a series of events presented in a chronological order with the form of a story, the narrative, is a way of representing them. In this the notion of the historical narrative then the manner in which it is related to in classical narratology, at least as far as its more traditional understanding of narrative goes. This perception of narrative distinguishes fictional time and story time in a manner fitting with the premise of structuralism.

In his "The Historical Text as Literary Artifact" Hyden White perceives narrative as a prose written lingual utterance that has a development of events in a way that grants them with coherence and understandability. Hyden White views narrative as a complex of events spread across a sequence of verbally organized times in a manner that creates a gradual development of the events into a comprehensible form. Other philosophers that preceded Hyden White have already pointed out the fact that narrative grants historical events coherence, but Hyden White was the first to suggest the importance of their structuring in prose. In "The Historical Text as Literary Artifact" Hyden White argues that the same series of chronological events could be narrated in different manners by stressing different parts of the series of events, an action which he terms "emplotment". Hyden White does not mean by this interference or change in the order of the historical events in the historical narrative, but simply to a different construction of the same series of event in light of essentially literary conventions and through different emphasis of different events. Hyden White lists four main types of emplotment which are tragedy, satire, comedy and romance.  

Hyden White is without a doubt one of the more influential history philosophers starting from the late 70's till present day. Though some consider him the herald of postmodernism in history, he himself does not consider himself as a postmodernist and indeed a close inspection of his thought reveals a tendency towards traditional thought mainly in his structural approach towards narrative. The Historical Text a Literary Artifact is one of Hyden White's most notable works that illustrate some of his key notions on history and narrative. 

Narrative studies in psychology of discourse


In recent decades an interesting cross-disciplinary meeting is taking place between cognitive psychology and especially discourse psychology


What is Discourse Psychology?
To begin with, discourse psychology IS NOT Discursive psychology. Discourse psychology is a field of study in which the linguistics discipline of discourse analysis and cognitive psychology meet. During the 70's cognitive psychology's interest in understanding and memory was extended to an interest in the processing and understanding of texts, which borrowed tools, methods and theory form discourse analysis, and this eventually led to an interest is stories, which is the realm of narratology.

Discourse psychology is engaged with question such as the comprehension of texts or oral discourses. Inferences are one of the central points of interest for discourse psychology, being everything that requires thought and processing beyond what is given in a text or oral discourse. For example, hypotheses formed in the course of reading are required in order to make sense of an ongoing, uncompleted process, while evaluation is needed to sum up a story's meaning in retrospect. Filling in information gaps that are an essential part of every text is a cognitive function, and that is what discourse psychology is interested in.

The field of discourse psychology is, like cognitive psychology, very much interested in memory, and memory is understood in relation to cognitive schemata or scripts which represents generic knowledge of the world that enables us to fit in every new event of piece of information into known schemes. A scheme, for instance, is what allows us the omit details from a description, story or account and still be understood. In literature or cinema, for instance, a genre is a type of schema that helps us understand what's going on based on certain expectations we have that arise from our knowledge of the genre.

 The difference between discursive psychology and discourse psychology is that discursive psychology is engaged with how psychological features are manifested in discourse, and the way they facilitate its reception and understanding by the human psyche. 

Alan Dershowitz – "Life is Not a Dramatic Narrative" – article review and summary


In his "life is Not a Dramatic Narrtive" (1996) the famous O.J.Simpson trail attorney Alan Dershowitz argues with much vigor against the call to incorporate narratological elements into the discourse of law practice and studies. Stories have a purpose and meaning, Dershowitz says, but life does not, and any attempt to view the later as subjected to the rules and workings of the former will result in the distortion of truth.

Dershowitz line of argument stems for the Chekhov canon, "if in the first chapter you say that there is a gun hung on the wall, in the second or third chapter it must without fail discharge". In reality, though, there are countless guns hung on wall and only very few of them are discharged at a victim. Life is random, and purposeless, it is only us that attempt to ascribe it with some meaning and order, and meaning and order are not an integral part of it. Thus bringing the narrative into the courtroom confuses the working of fiction with the task of finding out the truth.

Another example used by Dershowitz to tell narrative from reality is that of a dream. In a story the inclusion of an ominous dream must be prophetic, for otherwise, were it meaningless, the dream would have not been part of the narrative. In reality, though, people dream all the time, sometimes horrendous dreams, without carrying them out, which makes the dream not only redundant in the attempt to track the truth, but also dangerous.
Dershowitz also argues, following Sartre, that a story is always constructed in hindsight. Its causal principles are only possible when all elements of the narrative relate and contribute towards a already known ending. Reality is chaotic, and endless facts scamper and skirmish about it with no teleology in mind.

Dreshowitz perceives narrative as something which distorts reality rather than mediate it. He is a positivist, believing that actual objective reality is available to our grasp if we only utilize the right methods, which are predominantly aimed at dismissing with deceiving elements, such as narrative. 

Richard Delgado – "Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative" – article review and summary


In his 1989 subversive article "Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative" Richard Delgado holds that a story is not always just a story, but rather a function which creates order and coherency and which manifests a certain meaning, thus being a shared reality experience of a group, and in fact forming that group. The linkage between narrative and group identity, especially out-groups, turns for Delgado the field of social politics into an arena of competing stories, different accounts of the same reality. A story, the argument goes, has a sort of double function. On the one hand Delgado argues that oppression is not just a statutory or social matter, but rather something that has to do with mindset and a a perception which are manifested in narratives, meta- and sub-, designed to justify in the eyes of the ruling class and group the situation as it is, a narrative that they impose and coerce on other groups in order to fend off any attempts for change. On the other hand stories can subvert dominant narratives and be a means of deconstructing ruling mindsets. In other words, stories create a shred reality and agreement, and so do counter-stories that serve as cohesion for out groups.   

In "Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative" Richard Delgado uses five stories which relate to the same event in which a black professor is denied a teaching position in a white-dominated faculty. It is clear for Delgado that the same object can be described in different way, but for him the same goes for the co-structuring of different objects and the perception of events' meaning. Accordingly, moral judgments are found in a state of constant under-determination in relation to reality. Telling reality is in fact creating it, and Delgado argues that "we decide what is, and, almost simultaneously, what ought to be." (p.292).

  Delgado analyses how stories pick and choose facts in order to depict a clear image of a otherwise ambiguous course of events. Stories are not only manifested by the things they note and the questions they answer, but also by what is left out and the questions that are not asked. Delgado shows how the story of the in-groups (the white professor) is designed to quell criticism and reassure that everything is the way it ought to be. On the other hand a report of the same story, as it were, by a different party (the black candidate) can offer a completely different account which destabilizes the agreed upon narrative and reveals its problems through different details, emphasis and organization that turn against the standard narrative's guiding logic. The court's narrative, on the other hand, uses a factual screen to determine which details will make its narrative and codes them into law lingo the works to disarm them. Delgado's fourth story in "an authentic counterstory" by a radical student which confronts the system directly and bluntly, this in turn allowing for the accused to fend off and cancel the content of the story on account of its form and context. Where the direct assault failed an anonymous leaflet narrating and pseudo-imaginary story invites postponement of judgment and cooperation with it, thus managing to infiltrate and subvert the ruling narrative.

So Richard Delgado argues that stories can be means in the hands of out-groups to challenge the mindset which is the source of their oppression. Delgado explains the all might benefit from giving voice to such narratives: the oppressed by asserting their reality and oppressors by meeting these challenges and developing towards a shared narrative.