The Working of Cultural Studies

To my mind one of the most unfortunate developments in Anglophone academia over the last half-century has been the gradual overtaking of expert, focused research into specific cultural fields with bland, all-purpose ‘cultural studies’, for which the leading organisation was the now defunct Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded in 1964 by Richard Hoggart, with the directorship taken over by the late Stuart Hall, who ran it from 1968 to 1979; Richard Johnson was a later director of the centre, which was closed in 2002. It was Hall who was the defining figure in the field, in particular through his ‘encoding/decoding’ model of culture. I would argue that the work of Hall, who became a major public figure often on the media, played a significant part in creating a climate in which the arts and humanities could decline in academia, and his ideas were very friendly to neo-liberal cultural ideologues, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post. More broadly, cultural studies generally does not require any in-depth knowledge of any particular cultural field, and so can be undertaken without much in the way of prior skills and training. Its value and impact are obscure other than in a destructive sense, but it feeds a narrow and petty politics of resentment, enabling its practitioners to stand in superior judgement upon vast swathes of culture, the very thing deemed irrelevant by many right-wing educationalists.

But in some ways I think the below sums up the field (to which I will return in more serious blog posts in the future) better:

The Working of Cultural Studies

Stage 1. Robert and Angela, students of English, are in their digs.
Robert: I hate reading Milton, would sooner watch the telly and go down the pub.
Angela: Me too.

Stage 2. Robert and Angela in the pub
Angela: It’s all too much work.
Robert: Yes. Why don’t we write that, rather than the other stuff?
Angela: Good idea!

Stage 3. Robert and Angela receiving a special commendation for their new article ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Hegemony of ‘Difficult’ Literature in Tertiary Education’
Angela: Phew, that Gramsci footnote saved it!
Robert: Yes, and there was no way they could argue with ‘We know (Bourdieu 1984) that all cultivations of academic difficulty mask systems of social division and privilege, and constitute a rearguard action to maintain the working classes in a subservient position’
Angela: Cool! And I liked that Carl Maria von Weber.
Robert: Wasn’t it Marc Weber?
Angela: I thought he wrote that twelve-tone stuff?
Robert: Dunno.
Speaker at award: We were especially impressed by the new concept of ‘privilege-encoding complexity’.

Stage 4. Robert and Angela receive joint chairs of the Chipping Sodbury School of Cultural Studies (replacing the Schools of English and Modern Languages) and are editing The Routledge Handbook of Privilege-Encoding Complexity: Why Soap Operas matter as much as Milton.
Robert (to Angela): You were fantastic on Start the Week.


One Comment on “The Working of Cultural Studies”

  1. […] The Working of Cultural Studies (11/4/15) […]

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