Cultural Studies -- some notes

These notes offer an 'argument sketch' for the lectures which follow  (related to the course -- see file). I also use them to cover some of the more 'theoretical' material as background. 

#1 Introductory
1. Studies of popular culture offer a classic clash between 'high theory' and 'low culture' (to quote a famous book title). There are some very sophisticated theoretical analyses available, but the object of analysis is often something as mundane as a T-shirt or an afternoon's surfing. One running question will be - what motivates this sophisticated analysis? what is gained by it exactly?, or , more simply - is it all bloody worth it?. As any readers of my own work will note (!) , I mean these as genuine questions, and have by no means made up my own mind yet.
2. The issue takes on a particular shape when we consider methodology and validity. How do we know these anlyses are right?. Are there any grounds for preferring one approach rather than another? How can different analyses be tested or applied? Again, these issues will run and run.
3. As an erstwhile sociologist, I tend to think in terms of broad approaches or 'theories'. There is no obligation for you to do so too, though, and this is by no means a systematic social theory course. But you will find references to certain 'isms' in the texts, and certain sections where writers attempt  to settle accounts with each other in a 'theoretical' way. A full engagement with these debates is beyond us in a short course like this, though, but some brief and early points might help.We shall see some actual analyses based on these approaches when we consider the specific topics each week, but you might find it useful to turn to the glossary now, and look up the sections on marxism, structuralism, figurationalism and ethnography.
4 For the workshop, we can start with a look at the piece by M. Hayes on recipes (in Day), or on margarine advertising (in Barthes). As you read through, you might want to respond to the following questions:

  1. What are the main points the author is making, about the specific topic and about culture in general?
  2. What evidence is used to suppport the main points?
  3. How convincing do you find the arguments? Give reasons.
  4. Are there any alternative ways to analyse the topic?
 #2 CCCS Traditions

1 We begin with the work of the influential CCCS/OU Popular Culture group who began trying to claim the study of youth cultures for marxism in the 1970s. Youth cultures in those days seemed promising for marxists, offering a kind of cultural politics which seemed good at upsetting the authorities.
2 There were also challenges for marxism too, though, producing some early ground-clearing: youth seemed to be a field occupied already mostly by biological or psychological accounts of the 'natural' problems of 'adolescents'. For the CCCS writers, social class had been ignored,  yet it was the real source for many of the problems facing youth. Age was important too - class and age affected youth in a 'double articulation' ( Intro. in Hall and Jefferson)
3 What were these problems? P. Cohen had identified some social problems of loss of identity (see Hall & Jefferson), following the breakdown of the traditional communities of London's East Eand after the War. Other writers like Willis (Learning to Labour) pointed to the problems faced by 'the lads' at school - a classic case affected by both age and classs.
4 What solutions were available to youth? Marxists hoped for political solutions, but were also interested in cultural solutions. Youths expressed and resolved their problems and dilemmas, dramatised and acted them out in youth subcultures and styles - expressing a desire for lost community in gang territorialism m(or fandom these days), or a hope of a classless society in 'mod' respectability (or techno-fantasies). As politics, these solutions were limited, of course - they offererd only 'imaginary' or 'magical' resolutions of the problems.
5 Various mechanisms helped form these stylistic solutions (helping analysts to decode them). Willis uses the notion of homology, for example, which expresses some perceived similarity between one's position and some symbolic qualities in various objects - British motorbikes symbolise a past tradition of industrialisation and community threatened by Japanese technology (explaining the status to  be gained by bikers owing and maintaining one), for example.
6 Often, these symbolic connections are only dimly understood by the members, but other youth are more positive and conscious of creating a style, classically one cobbled together from materials already provided by the market (secondhand 1950s clothing, trainers, gothic haircuts and tattoos, perhaps). This free-wheeling assembly of materials is often called bricolage (like homology, a term borrowed from structural anthropology). Apart from theoretical gains, using terms like this emphasised the positive, creative, skilled, aesthetic aspects of youth cultures, against critics (from left and right) who wanted to see them as commercially-provided junk.
7 CCCS writers were also well aware that the authorities were capable of bricolage too, however, and Hall et al's Policing the Crisis... documents the emergence of a particular 'moral panic' about youth in the mugging phenomenom of the 1970s. Here, the press and the police and the 'respectable' public did their own interweavings of cultural materials (symbolising street crime, sexuality, unemployment, 'weird' religions and foreign ways) to create the image of the black mugger, a symbol of crime, urbanism, and other undesired social and political changes, a metaphor for all that was wrong with Britain in the 1970s, and a main plank in the turn towards 'law'n'order' that ushered in the Conservative era ('Thatcherism' as Hall was to name it).
8 For the workshop, read one of the specific case-studies in Hall & Jefferson,  and contrast it with accounts of the participants at the time (eg from interviewing your relatives, 1970s people in College [no ageism though]).
#3 Gramscianism and Linguistics

1 As #2 implied, gramscians need a 'proper linguistics' to pursue further their interests in the mechanisms of coding and decoding, both how the emerging Thatcherite bloc was able to successfully 'code' or 'articulate' a new popular vision of Britain, and how any popular form of resistance might be articulated on the left. As Hebdige explains, there were also some academic issues at stake - gramscians wanted some kind of rapprochement with their old allies (the left-wing literary critics like Williams, and Hoggart). And there were some structuralist marxists to be taken on - represented on our booklist by Coward.. Hebdige also suggests that the symbolising activites of the masss media must be central to any study of youth cultures, since (to paraphrase him) the nostalgic view of working class community held by skinheads is as likely to be derived from Coronation Street as from any real local historical  knowledge.
2 The problem was that (structural) linguistics refused to be just 'bolted on' to marxism, and gradually developed interests of its own, away from marxist agendas. Barthes' work shows this, as he moved towards a more abstract interest in how language worked: marxist interests in codes as forms of ideology designed to keep proles quiet ceased to be at the centre of things, and attention was directed towards other effects of language - how codes delivered many kinds of meanings, or narrative tension, feelings of involvement, and other kinds of pleasure.
3 Theoretically, structural linguistics started to see language as increasingly self-contained, with the meanings of signs given by their relations to other signs and not by reference to some essential external events (like class struggle). This notion was to lead in the end to postmodernism.
4 Gramscians fought hard to keep their linguistic allies under control (see Hll's commentary in CML) and to try to find the right line between linguistic analysis and material analysis. Crises developed in thework on politics, for example.Some old allies (Like Laclau) urged them to head towards 'post-marxism' and see marxism merely as an (optional) discourse with no special claims to validity. Others (like Jessop et al) criticised them (Hall and Jacques especially) for focussing too much on the 'discourses' of Thatcherism and not enoough on the real material changes to the economy that were taking place.
5 The dilemmas persists to this day,. in the later work that followed the main pieces on youth cultures. Hall's recently published contributions to debates about ethnic identity show them clearly (in Donald and Rattansi on our booklist - and see his bits in Ten.8 2, 3 1992). On the one hand, Hall wants to argue that black British identities are real phenomena, with real roots (!) concretely determined by the history of slavery and diaspora, added to specific factors at work in Britain. On the other, he wants to say that black identity is a matter of linguistic articulations, the interplay of discourses, a much more malleable and less central affair, one identity among many, optional, dependent upon how one articulates one's experiences, no more privileged than any other identity.
6 To be very unfair, it seems to me that gramscians have argued the discursive side very hard against 'class' as an identity in their struggles to 'modernise' the Communist Party), are weaselling at the moment about 'race' as a 'core 'identity, and are embarrassingly silent about the third great core identity - gender. Further problems await in my view - is being a consumer or a green a real or a discursive identity? Laclau and others were advocating ethnicity as some kind of 'master identity' to explain (and welcome) the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1991 - should Serbs and Croats be advised to rearticulate their identities now, though?
7 To return to our main focus, for now, the workshop focusses on punk, one of the youth subcultures that reveal the dilemmas, for Hebdige. Punk was so flexible and bizarre that it seemed to elude marxist analysis altogether (for the enthusiasts, like Hebdige), and offered instead a street version of surrealism, deliberately playing with, rearranging and subverting various signifiers for its own sake, as it were, and leaving homologies far behind. Sceptics among you might consider that an optimistic reading, focussing on the art student wing of punk and ignoring the commercial interests at work. A glance at the very cynical account in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle might help stimulate some thinking. 

# 4 Excessive Maleness? Excessive Whiteness?

1  We've hinted at some of the issues here already. It became clear early on that focussing on spectacular street youth cultures would also focus on males at the expense of females, as McRobbie pointed out in the very first collection (Hall & Jefferson). Gramscians at least hastened to restore the balance, and special CCCS collections were produced on women (Women Take Issue, Off-Centre, and see the McRobbie collection) and on black people (The Empire Strikes Back). Lots of other work included sections on black people and women too (eg CML). However, the issue arises again - can these topics merely be added to or bolted on  to underlying model of 'double articulation', or do they introduce new problems which require new concepts?
2 Mc Robbie argued forcefully that women and girls had just been neglected in the earlier studies, and demonstrated this particularly well in her critique of youth subcultural analysis in Willis and Hebdige: to be very brief, she argued that rebellious youth also lived in families, had mums and sisters and girlfriends, and so their stylistic rebellions must reflect this important context of gender relations too, yet this had not been studied adequately if at all. Further, the very problems and solutions faced by youth were quite different for girls - the control of girls' sexuality (as a 'problem'), and 'bedroom culture' (as a 'solution') indicate the differences. Studying the leisure activites of females was to lead to considerable developments into new areas of interest (the mass media audience, for example, in Hobson's work), and, correspondingly into new methodologies ( to grasp the significance of ranges of pleasure, for example, as the course goes on to demonstrate).
3 A theoretical crisis emerged early on too, in Women Take Issue. Again, briefly, it was argued that new concepts were needed to focus on the areas that affected women especially (and had emerged as crucial in the Women's Movement of the time)- the family, sexuality, the structure of the personality, 'the personal' in general. The writers in WTI saw no reason to head for Gramsci to supply these concepts, nor to try and tweak the concept of hegemony still further, and preferred instead to locate themselves in the structuralist marxist tradition (and elsewhere).
4 Black people too proved to be problematic for the purists. Black youth culture was not really ignored, not even in the early work (Hall & Jefferson contains a chapter on black youth). Hebdige (in Subcultures...) wants to go further, though, and argue that 'race' can be seen as a central determinant for youth cultures, that the relations to black popular cultural elements structures white ones every bit as strongly as class or age.
5 The black collective that produced The Empire Strikes Back also had reservations about the concrete findings of some of the analyses which had failed to really grasp black experience. New work was needed, based on experience and struggle, not on an attempt to make existing concepts stretch. Gilroy even includes his colleagues in the CCCS for this error, and offers a reinterpretation of Hall et al on black muggers, or Hebdige on Rastafarianism (for example). Gilroy was to go on to produce an excellent analysis of the codings of white racism and black identities in There Ain't No Black (and we have seen something of Hall's recent work on black identity): both writers have been rebuked recently by a famous black activist (Sivanandan in Comunities of Resistance...) along the lines of Gilroy's own earlier critique (that such 'academic' analyses lose the distinctiveness of black experience).
6 The theoretical wrangles are largely absent in the more concrete work . In Clarke and Critcher (The Devil Makes Work...), my favourite example, 'race' class and gender somehow simply co-exist and add up, while the issue of whether they might diverge or contradict each other, politically or theoretically, is repressed.
7 For us, the problem remains, right in the middle of the concrete work, as the workshop might show- how do you study the popular cultural activities of black people and/or women (or any other ethnic or sexual minorities *, for that matter)?
 - do you have to be a member of the group to really understand it?
 - what theoretical frameworks are suitable to explain the activities?
 - do any general implications for youth cultures follow from these studies?

 * see Dyer in Bridges and Brunt (eds) Silver Linings... for a rare study of male gays and disco culture.
#5 Music and Youth

1 If you have read this far, you will have noticed that the debates range well beyond youth cultures. The gramscians themselves seemed to have lost interest in youth cultures, in fact (see Hebdige's confession in Hiding in theLight), and Frith (in Haralambos) explains why - briefly, youth had ceased to be the main metaphor for social change and cultural renewal as youth unemployment turned rebels into victims. Younger readers might also be wondering on a more personal level how and whether all this 1970s material relates to modern youth . This week begins a sequence designed to address these issues, and to bring in some work on pop music to start us off.
2 Music has always been one of the main characteristics of youth cultures, along with argot and dress, yet it offers special problems for the analyst:

  • the production of music shows a number of complexities and differences (eg between the tight economic control and commercialism of the studios and record producers, and the less commercial apsects of independent production or,above all, of live performance)
  • at the consumption end, although definite subcultures are associated with some music, the audience is more flexible and mobile than that. Again, consumption circumstances vary - listening at home or at a concert, for example.
3 The actual analyses of musical styles (in Hebdige, Chambers, or Frith) show the complexities and the limits of a simple reduction of musical style to the function of just representing (eg via homologies) relatively permanent youth cultures.
(a) black music, and its convoluted development in and out of liasions with white styles (as well as reflecting changing social conditions for black people)
(b) the detailed interconnections and internal references between the emergence of 'progressive rock' in the 1960s, the reaction to it in the country/folk revivals, the reaction to that in turn from devotees of heavy metal, keen to recapture the music for the urban working class, the development of 'teeny-bop' for the emerging young female audience,left out of heavy metal fantasies, and the more sophisticated and jaded response to conventional sexuality in the 'trash aesthetics' of glam rock.
4 In the workshop, students can try to analyses the nature of modern youth groupings - eg those who attend 'raves', or the modern suburban record-buyer.
# 6 Leisure

1 Leisure is another site to display the clash of rival perspectives, and we focus this week on the attempts by gramscians to colonise the field (via the work of Clarke and Critcher, or the later variant in Hargreaves), and consider some of their difficulties.
2 Clarke and Critcher want to argue that leisure is structured ultimately by the usual cultural/political struggles, patterns of setlement and crisis and the like, and feel the need to use this view to see off earlier sociologies of leisure (like those of Parker or Roberts). As usual, the project wants to offer a complex, non-reductionist marxist account of leisure. One interesting feature of the approach is the attempt to add in feminist work (largely Deem's) on gender as a structuring agent. Race is not foregrounded, and there is little theoretical discussion of how to integrate class and gender.
3 Hargreaves borrows from Foucault to offer an 'elaborated gramscian' account. Again, historical evidence is amassed to show the elements of struggle (and attempts to control) in the development of 'free' lesiure activities, and the complex articulations of combinations of social groups, and the development of 'disciplinary technologies' to manage and domesticate them. Gender is developed as a concern here (and even more so in Jennifer Hargreaves' piece in Rojek L for L). Some modern lesiure activities are discussed (critically) - my favourite is the health and fitness craze, which is allied to consumerism, and comes tostand for the most potent combination yet of disciplinary technologies.
4 Critics want to suggest that leisure patterns are too complex to be managed in gramscian terms. Figurationalists offer a similar history of popular lesiure, but deny the underlying structuring influence of 'struggle' (see Rojek in Capitalism and Leisure Theory). Contributors to the Rojek collection (Leisure for Leisure) want to criticise the definitions of leisure that dominate earlier work, including gramscian pieces, and go on to raise new possibilities once we abandon a strict work/leisure separation (see especially Moorhouse, and Bishop and Hoggett). They advocate a new open-ness to the subjective experiences of leisure,(employing ethnography or Freudian analysis, for example) instead of an attempt to read in political significance from the beginning.
5 In the absence of much research on subjective experience so far, students might like to explore some of these personal meanings in the workshop - are participants in sport able to find meanings which rise above the disciplining of the body? Can housework ever be 'leisure'? 

#7 Leisure and Pleasure

1 As #6's notes show, early interest tended to be focussed on 'official' or organised leisure and its political consequences, its role in hegemonic struggle or patriarchy (or both). A number of developments, closely allied to new work on the audience in media studies, or on consumerism (which see below), changed the focus in recent years. Now, concepts like 'pleasure' came to the fore, and researchers began to explore the obvious pleasure that punters found in a whole range of new activities. Fiske's work offers a good range of these activities: surfing, playing video games, shopping, fantasising while watching videos, wandering around cities and so on.
2 Earlier analysis had been rather suspicious of such pleasures, seeing them as a hook to deliver the audience to disciplinary technologies etc. Fiske and others see a new hopeful significance in them, since participants seem able find or impose pleasures of their own, and thereby avoid or resist the ideological effect.
3 Fiske's optimism draws heavily upon the work of de Certeau (and Bakhtin), who celebrate the ways the apparently powerless have of tricking the authorities, pretending to go along with official discourses while quietly mocking them, poaching the odd illict pleasure here and there while authority's back is turned.The resources to do this have stayed with powerless groups in modern societies, and circulate (as 'popular cultural capital') in networks found among neighbourhoods, drinking circles and various other informal gatherings.There is an unmistakeable echo of the earlier work on the resilience of youth. 
4 Frow is less certain about the significance of these activities, and sees them as less original and spontaneous (or subversive) as the enthusiasts. Again, participants in workshops can recall their own attempts to seek pleasure in the ironic reading of official discourses in Butlins holiday camp, or Club 18-30, or in the joys of shopping without buying (or studying without meaning it?), and ask themselves whether or not the system always wins in the end. 

 #8 Media 1

1 There has long been a close attention to the pleasures delivered by film and television (and printed media), and a lotof work devoted to examinng how this pleasure is managed by the producers. Early work tends to be suspicious of this pleasure, seeing it as 'ideological': films or programmes sucked in the audience by encouraging sinister kinds of uncritical involvement, then subjects the viewers to conventional messages about women, black people, proles, capitalism, Englishness or whatever. The radical answer included an emphasis on media education, to make the viewer aware of these dastardly tricks, and enable them to be critical and resist - Buckingham offers a good account.
2 Codes and narratives involve the viewer, as work on 'realism' demonstrates. The classic realist piece offers the viewer a range of positions to begin with, each of which is flawed, and then delivers resolution (and pleasure) by offering the 'real'  position which explains all the others. Experienced viewers gain heightened pleasure by anticipating the final resolutions. No viewer can experience pleasure except by submitting to the power of the narrative, though.
3 Representations deliver pleasure too. There is the obvious pleasure derived by 'peeping' at beautiful women (to parody a famous piece by Mulvey on the dominant gaze). There are less immediate pleasures to be gained by recognising conventional representations and 'filling in' the background - when we see a 'brassy blonde', or a black youth, or a 'respectable' household, or a Cockney sergeant, or the American West landscape, we can already begin to  speculate about what will occur, and find pleasure when it does occur. Again, this depends entirely upon being able to occupy the most conventional stereotyped positions, however.
4  Students can reflect upon these matters - and, in anticipation of next week's work ask whether 'positioning' always works -  by watching a conventional piece - a Marilyn Monroe movie, perhaps, a Western, a soap, or a detective film. 

#9 Media 2 -- the Audience

1 Studies of the television audience have followed again this shift we have noticed before - from a gloomy, passive view of the audience as positioned victims of ideology towards a view of an active, skilled, resisting groups capable of imposing their own views and readings.
2 Much work focusses upon 'effect analysis' - attempts to pin down precise, usually psychological changes in people as a result of watching television. The classic work concerns the old favourite issues of sex'n'violence, but, as Buckingham argues, old lefties were equally worried about racism, sexism etc. This sort of analysis has run into serious difficulties, though, since it is almost impossible to show a definite effect arising solely from television. For sceptical and careful analyses of this tradition, see the Belson study (on violence), and the very different work by Braham on TV and racism. Root has a more popular summary of the problems.
3 Root also introduces an idea of the audience as skilled readers and interpreters to complement the work of Fiske (in  #8). This also qualifies the gloomier marxist anxieties about 'positioning' discussed last week. Here, the audience is capable of ironic  readings of even the most unpromising material - like feminist readings of Dallas (see Ang), or of melodramas (see Brunsdon). Fiske has many other examples - including viewers who resist the conventional closings of Miami Vice by simply switching off just before the solemn morialising at the end of each episode.
4 The power of these subversive readings is starting to be felt by the TV industry itself - eg Grossberg argues that postmodern TV knows it must demand the attention of the audience and has largely abandoned the attempt to carefully position that audience in a clever narrative delivering ideology (eg in the realist mode). Fiske, similarly, suggests that a certain looseness in TV programmes is now a commercial necessity - viewers must be left with unfinished programmes with lots of space for their own readings or they will not watch. On the other, I wonder if TV has not now caught up with subversive readers and is now in the business of apparently subverting itself in a nice safe way - via programmes like Soap, Moonlighting, Waynes World, the number of  60s reruns (this time as farce - Thunderbirds, Stingray etc).
5 In the workshop, students can pursue the reactions of themselves or others as they watch a soap (or a cult 60s re-run). What subversive readings are available of Neighbours? Where do they come from?

#10 Consumerism
1 Once more, views of consumption/consumerism have changed over the years. Once it was bad and ideological, an invitation to be positioned by a narrative, or subjected to a disciplinary technology. Consumerism involved providing people with prepackaged commercialised goods under the promise of false pleasures and short-lived fulfillment, depriving them of the ability to create things of their own.
2  As Tomlinson's Introduction suggests, there has long been a peculiarly British suspicion of consumerism involving the  threats to the 'moral economy' of British youth: consumerism promised too much too early, an easy and soft life, instant gratification without sacrifice or hard work. A particular element was added from the shape of consumerism in austerity Britain, which involved the importation of American goods (see also Hebdige in Hiding in the Light on the cultural significance of 'American' styling).
3 The major critics, though, are usually seen as the critical theorists (see Glossary). Marcuse's famous analysis saw the modern capitalist economy as having to create 'false needs' to keep people buying, and foresaw the complete commercialisation and administration of pleasure - even private and erotic pleasures (as in the sex industry). Thus the system tended towards 'one-dimensionality', as needs and desires were increasingly shaped towards what the economy could provide.
4 Gramscians have never liked this ruthlessly pessimistic sort of analysis, and have gradually discovered the active and wittily resisting consumer, as our discussion of the TV audience or the 'poacher' have shown. Willis's latest is also a good example, showing how the young unemployed use the goods they consume (like second hand clothes or cheap posters) to produce genuinely artistic work, grounded in 'popular aesthetics'. Readers must judge for themselves whether these activities (or the lyrical accounts of the creativity of the video games player in Fiske) 'talk up' these activities and lend them a significance they do not warrant.
5 The consumer has also emerged as a major political force for gramscians as a quick perusal of the "New Times' phase of the struggle against Thatcherism reveals (see Hall S and Jacques M eds New Times). Nava's article offers a typically optimistic piece, attacking Marcuse (and Adorno, who she lumps together with Marcuse, as all gramscians tend to do), and arguing that consumers have real power to affect markets and alter the course of capitalism (eg via consumer boycotts). In the workshops, we can discuss the conditions under which consumer power might work - or be re-incorporated into capitalism just like the critical theorists suggest. 

#11 Food

1 As we saw with recipes from Week 1, food is a cultural and social matter, not merely a biological one. Mennell offers a useful way into the discussions (and helps us to do some revision on different approaches):

  1. structuralist/ anthropological approaches, like C. Levi-Strauss's focus on the symbolic significance of food. Food is something to think with. Food preparation involves the transfomration of natural substances into social ones, and thus stands as a metaphor for some important thinking about society, its relation to the natural world,other natural/social processes (like sex) and so on. The options in food processing - raw/cooked/smoked/cured- offer a valuable source of symbolism in myths and rituals.
  2. modern work on food taboos also show the social significance of food and social patterns and processes. There is a whole sociology of taste to explore here (se also James's work on 'kets' and chocolate).
  3. marxist work reveals the connections of food to class and power, and there are some interesting accounts of the (very capitalist) food industry too - eg Simmonds (in Tomlinson) on the amazing capacity of the food industry to respond to changes in taste (and consumer boycotts) by colonising non-capitalist food production (eg via cash crops in the 'Third World').
  4. figurational accounts (Mennell's own preferred approach), which trace the complex interactions of a number of individuals and groups in producing the modern menu. Some of these elements will look like classes or struggling groups - but there are also accidental or whimsical elements (like the irrational preferences for forks, or the actionsof chefs in deciding to write down recipes).
2 Students can try out these analyses by reflecting upon or observing actions at meals, and trying to chart meanings in some of the ways outlined above - is the Xmas meal simply 'traditional'? What lies behind its importance?