Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Stop Studying Cultural Studies

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Stop Studying Cultural Studies

Article excerpt

It started as an expression of dissent; now it merely glorifies the mediocre

Is cultural studies the end of civilised thought as we know it, as Michael Bywater argued in New Statesman (24 January)? Or is it a hard discipline not too far removed from physics and philosophy, with good employment prospects for its graduates, as Angela McRobbie claimed (NS, 14 February)? Unfortunately it is both. But it should be neither.

Cultural studies was conceived as a dissenting intellectual tradition outside the academy, dedicated to exposing power in all its forms. As it evolved in the sixties, through the work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E P Thompson, cultural studies was not supposed to be a "discipline", but an amorphous mode of inquiry with an inclusive concept of culture as a "whole way of life", as Raymond Williams put it.

It was to be free to borrow its methods from all social science disciplines, as well as humanities. It was supposed to cover a range of practices and representations through which social groups construct and maintain their realities. All this freedom with one responsibility: to expose all mechanisms by which culture and knowledge are manufactured, managed and controlled.

Cultural studies thus deliberately took an anti-disciplinary stance. It shunned thematic coherence and the sense of a progressive accumulation of knowledge because this is precisely how established disciplines produce and control knowledge. It did not attempt to formulate theories because theories tell you what to expect, how to react. It rejected institutional consolidation because that would have undermined its very reason to be. Clearly the function of such a field of inquiry was not to produce employable graduates; no: it was primarily to produce creative dissent, genuine intellectuals who subvert the established order.

But yesterday's dissent often ends up as today's establishment and, unless resisted, turns into tomorrow's terror.

Like ecology and feminism, cultural studies has been successfully domesticated and professionalised as a new specialisation in the knowledge industry.

It is significant that McRobbie compares cultural studies to physics. Social science disciplines have long suffered from "physics envy" and tried to ape the "hard", "objective" qualities of natural sciences. In its efforts to gain academic credibility, cultural studies has developed a rarefied language of its own, with terms such as "intervention", "interrogation" and "codes". While the people cultural studies discusses have little trouble grasping the realities of the world in which they live, they find it impossible to understand what cultural studies has to say about them.

Cultural studies displays three signs of becoming tomorrow's terror. First, it retains much of its original amorphous character, which means anything can be justified as a target for attention, free from quality control. It is one thing to study popular culture, quite another to romanticise junk and give it academic respectability. Meaningless "textual criticism" of music videos, pop culture and youth style has become a pathological obsession in cultural studies. …

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