Contexts of Cultural Studies

By Kershner, R. Brandon | European Joyce Studies, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

Contexts of Cultural Studies


Kershner, R. Brandon, European Joyce Studies


'We make texts timeless by suppressing their temporality."

- Barbara Herrnstein Smith

Because the rate of change of critical fashion has been increasing over the past fifty years or so it has become apparent that critical schools, movements, styles of intervention - whatever term we choose to assign to the provisory but interrelated grouping of interests and approaches of the critical moment-look very different at different times and from different perspectives. The New Criticism, for example, in its role as whipping-boy for the group of approaches known as poststructuralism, has taken on a homogeneity, coherence, and apparent simplicity that it never displayed during its heyday. I recall that even in the early 1960s, when I was learning its fundamentals, the New Criticism's tenets and methodologies were, at least to the eyes of an apprentice, still cloaked in mystery and embellished with what seemed to be a rather arbitrary set of interests. In any case, it bore small resemblance to the politically conservative, nostalgically agrarian, theologically inflected brand of American formalism to which any contemporary graduate student now feels entitled to condescend.

In part this is an effect of the need each critical generation feels to make a cartoon or straw man out of the preceding one so that it can be more elegantly and easily refuted; but in part I think it is a genuine epistemologica! effect of the formation and dissolution of discourses. Each critical movement, during the time of its inception and expansion, has an undefined, exploratory character; at least for a limited span of time, the approach seems to take up much of the available discursive space, so that it appears capable of dealing with any issue or form whatsoever. In Bakhtinian terms, an emerging critical discourse might be said to be unfinalizable, radically open in much the way a human being with his individual language, in Bakhtin's eyes, would be unfinalizable. Once that discourse has receded into the past, it becomes less open, more schematic, what Bakhtin would call increasingly objectified. As I suggested, this process may be partially due to our tendency to devalue critical movements of the past, to impute to them less complexity and subtlety than they actually possessed. But it is also due to the fact that, its moment having passed, that critical intervention has truly closed itself off from the possibilities for growth and ramification that it once held open.

All of this is by way of an introduction to a rather familiar caveat: that no very clear definition or exhaustive description of the critical approach called cultural studies is available to us. This assertion, if true, should be somewhat surprising, in that there is nothing very new about cultural studies; its lineage goes back nearly half a century and its hegemony is, academically speaking, quite well established. It has been the subject of dozens of significant conferences and several well-known anthologies, and has become a recognized area of specialization within Modern Language and Communications departments and to some degree elsewhere (such as in History departments). It constitutes a major category of publication for a good many academic presses and has even emerged as an organizing category in the better bookstores. A major incentive for the expansion of cultural studies, at least from the viewpoint of academic departments in search of intellectual fodder, is that cultural studies makes available to the humanities a wealth of material that previously had been ignored or thought inappropriate for humanistic study, and brings to bear upon them techniques and methods developed during the rise of structuralism and poststructuralism.

Cultural studies might examine such widely diverse discourses as "advertising, art, architecture, urban folklore, movies, fashion, popular literary genres (thrillers, romances, westerns, science fiction), photography, music, magazines, youth subcultures, student texts, theories of criticism, theater, radio, women's literature, television, and working-class literature. …

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