Anomic boyos and lathering lads

Cultural Studies and Beyond - Cultural Studies and Cultural Value - Beginning Theory
November 10, 1995

Cultural studies developed out of an awareness of the limitations of literary criticism particularly its disdain for what it considered to be the tawdriness and generally synthetic character of popular culture. Early writers such as Richard Hoggart, argued against this view claiming that popular culture could be every bit as complex, rich and life enhancing as the study of literature. The situation today is that the subject whose ambition was once to comprehend everyday experience as a prelude to political transformation is now as remote from it as it once accused literary criticism of being.

It takes a patient reader to construct a coherent narrative from Ioan Davies's addled prose. His general point, in a book that lurches between jargon and booming bonhomie "(e)verything else is anomic boyo" - is that culture is "transnational" and involves our coming to terms with "the 'native' and the 'cultured', the marginal and the mainstream". Hence jazz migrated from the black ghettos of America to the suburbs of Britain where it apparently became "the personal preserve of an aged misogynist wanking off before a wine bottle in Hull". This shameful stab is used to illustrate the point that the conditions in which culture is made need bear no relation to those in which it is consumed. Well, useful to get that learnt.

Philip Larkin, of course, could write. He could also spell. Diverting as Davies's grammatical lapses are - "implications is discussed" - and amusing though his spelling mistakes may be - E. P. Thompson is regarded as a "break" on left politics - they do detract from the story he has to tell.

In part cultural studies was concerned with defining what was and what was not English. But it was also influential in organising social movements for example coordinating centres for CND protests. Sadly, this radicalism did not survive the incorporation of cultural studies into the university. Henceforth its light was to be smothered under the bushel of theory.

The appearance of Althusserian Marxism with it emphasis on how social structures determined modes of thought was at odds with the British stress on experience and on culture as an intimate way of life. The adoption of Gramsci's concept of hegemony seemed to offer a compromise between these two positions represented by Perry Anderson and E. P. Thompson respectively. Hegemony describes how the dominant group seeks to maintain control of its rule through consent rather than coercion, a process which involves constant struggle, negotiation and compromise. Hegemony preserves the Althusserian concept of structure while allowing for the element of agency. Briefly, especially in the work of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham, it seemed possible that theory and practice could be reunited.

But this was not to be. Cultural studies fragmented, mainly along gender and ethnic lines and so the notion of a common culture has all but disappeared. This is the starting point of John Frow's lively and engrossing book in which he argues that the absence of a common culture does not excuse us from the responsibility of making value judgements.

Frow deftly exposes the weaknesses of relativism showing that it does not so much resolve as side-step the problem of value. To begin with there is a logical difficulty. The relativist promotes the value of difference while denying the idea of a common measure by which difference can be perceived. Since there is no common measure all practices are of equal value. But, as Frow argues, this position ultimately breeds indifference to other cultures and their values. The absence of an agreed framework also means that no culture can communicate with or learn from another. And the fact that relativism locates value in the difference between cultures means that it cannot adequately account for differences of judgement within cultures.

A solution to the latter has been to embrace wholeheartedly either "high" or "popular" culture. Frow rejects this option because "high" culture is too exclusive while "popular" culture involves, for intellectuals, not only a fantasy of "otherness" but also an assumption of the right to speak on behalf of others. Furthermore, the opposition of "high" and "popular" culture essentialises both, converting them into moral categories of good and bad which do nothing to advance understanding, either of them or of cultural value.

Frow believes that only by rethinking the concept of class will we gain more insight into the dynamics of "high" and "popular" culture and the relations between them. Class forms the basis of Frow's concept of a "regime of value". This, he claims, allows for the crosscultural exchange of value and for differences of judgement within valuing communities. It is at this point, however, that Frow's customary clarity deserts him. His "regime of value" is a mechanism by which values are formed, transmitted and regulated, a set of determinations which organise and animate the practice of value recognition. This is reasoning modelled on the administrative mentality. What is missing is a sense of value as lived experience, something which is found pre-eminently in literature. Frow also does not help his case by failing to give a single example of a dispute over value that could be resolved by his "regime".

That Frow finds himself caught in a mechanistic view of value can be attributed to the early history of cultural studies for when it separated itself from literary criticism it left behind a tradition of valuation of which it is now sorely in need. The problem with both Frow and Davies is that each denies the existence of intrinsic value. Value is always the effect of specific social relations and processes of signification. This implies that the quality of the object is irrelevant to the process of valuation - which is, frankly, absurd.

Cultural studies will continue to be plagued by the problem of value as long as it maintains this view. Should it wish to change it can no longer draw on the resources of literature which, as Peter Barry's excellent little book testifies, has been thoroughly colonised by theory. Barry provides a clear step-by-step guide to everything from stylistics to deconstruction. He also encourages his readers to question some of the assumptions of theory thereby rendering less it intimidating. Students will find the book extremely useful but they will be none the wiser about literature.

Gary Day is a senior lecturer in critical and cultural theory, De Montfort University.

Cultural Studies and Beyond: Fragments of Empire

Author - Ioan Davies
ISBN - 0 415 03836 7 and 03837 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £40.00, £12.99
Pages - 203

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