The Politics of Cultural Studies

By Mulhern, Francis | Monthly Review, July-August 1995 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Cultural Studies

Mulhern, Francis, Monthly Review

Among the more striking intellectual phenomena of these putatively postmodern times is the rise, in the metropolitan academy, of the new discipline of cultural studies. I say "new" because cultural studies properly understood was never merely the organized study of "culture"; it was, from the start, a directed, self-consciously oppositional program of theoretical and empirical investigation. Today, an idea that first took institutional shape as an annex of Birmingham University's English Department has developed to fill out the entire repertoire of academic activity: specialized degree and graduate programs, a new generation of teachers who, unlike their improvising mentors, are graduates trained in the discipline, professional associations, high-profile conferences, networks that cross continents. Corporate publishers devote whole catalogues to the written output of cultural studies, which by now includes not only the prolific research in the field, but also histories of the discipline itself, bulky course readers, and not a few bluffer's guides. At the same time as building its own impressive organization, cultural studies proposes, with increasing success, to remodel teaching and research in other areas of the academy, notably those of literary studies, history, sociology, and women's studies. The radical minority intervention of thirty years ago is now increasingly widely relayed as a new general formula for work across the entire range of what, for convenience, we may call the human sciences.

The feeling of incongruity - or of simple unreality - that this development must induce in a lucid observer is sharpened by the reflection that it has come about in historical conditions that, on the face of things, should have tended to frustrate it. The years in which cultural studies - a self-defined project of radical innovation and reconstruction - has flourished have been ones of severe financial austerity for the academic institutions that house the subject (especially but not only in Britain) and of setback and disorientation for the radical movements that have been its inspiration. The cultural studies boom is an impressive reality, but no one should rush to celebrate it as a simple tale of progress. While acknowledging, as is proper, the individual and collective achievements that cultural studies has made possible, we should pause for some necessary critical reflection on the general logic of the project as a mode of cultural analysis, and on what is called cultural politics.

I attempt this here in the form of five brief notes, beginning with a definition of cultural studies as a distinctive trend in cultural analysis, going on to dwell on some paradoxes of life and thought in the discipline, and closing with some general critical remarks on the relationship that is at stake in it, namely that between culture and politics.


The classic definition of what came to be cultural studies was proposed by Raymond Williams: it would investigate the creation of meaning in and as a formative part of "a whole way of life," the whole world of sense-making (descriptions, explanations, interpretations, valuations of all kinds) in societies understood as historical material human organizations. In the first place, then, cultural studies called for a drastic expansion of the field of analysis, beyond the boundaries maintained by the literary criticism from which it emerged: all social meanings are eligible for scrutiny. However, this does not suffice to define it. The older tradition of cultural criticism (or kulturkritik, the standard German term which I prefer to use here, in roman type from now on, on the grounds that the familiar English words are too familiar to hold the strict definition my argument calls for) gave special importance to the study of everyday meaning. Writers in this tradition, like the literary critics F.R. and Q.D. Leavis in England, or the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset in Spain, or the younger Thomas Mann in Germany, responded passionately to the new "mass" culture of democracy and commercialized literacy, but always in a spirit of high-minded, traditionalist revulsion. …

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