Freedoms threatened - let's go shopping

British Cultural Studies - A Companion to Cultural Studies
July 19, 2002

Every few years a big fat cultural studies reader appears. This year we are offered two: A Companion to Cultural Studies , edited by Toby Miller, and British Cultural Studies , edited by David Morley and Kevin Robins.

The problem with cultural studies is that the whole always seems to be less than the sum of its parts. While I might be persuaded that Tracy Emin's tent entitled Everybody I've Ever Slept With : 1963-1995 is best understood "in the context of an increasingly confessional culture in which women in particular are incited to reveal their intimate selves on TV", I have much greater difficulty in believing that the present state of cultural studies is anything more than an unset jelly. Revelling in its lack of disciplinary identity, almost anything finds shelter under cultural studies's all-embracing rubric. This is particularly true of Miller's volume where the brilliant and the dim-witted jostle for attention. Douglas Kellner's delicate probing of the relation between cultural studies and philosophy left me wanting more, but Jason King's "Rap and Feng Shui" made me nervous about opening further anthologies of this kind, in case I am again confronted with sentences such as: "The ass is a highly contested and deeply ambivalent site/sight... It may become a nexus, even, for the unfolding of contemporary culture and politics." As a parody of the pretentiousness that afflicts some aspects of cultural studies, this sentence would be sheer genius - but it is not meant as parody. Of course, a more hip reading might celebrate the inclusion of this piece as a sign of the democratic nature of cultural studies; but in fact it just makes me want to fogey on down.

Miller says that cultural studies is the "master trope" of the humanities, but it could equally be described as their parasite since as Miller himself admits: "(i)t takes its agenda from economics, politics, media and communication studies, sociology, literature, education, the law, science and technology studies, anthropology and history." Lacking a clearly defined field of study, the practitioners of cultural studies can never be held to account for violations of scholarship or standards of argument that apply to other disciplines. Instead, any lapses can be justified as subversions of authority, or creative crossings of departmental boundaries. Well maybe, but in undermining the integrity of subject knowledge, the practitioners work hand in hand with those who would make transferable skills the goal of higher education, rather than mastery of a particular field. Cultural studies is a method without an object and so fits snugly into a society that would have us master means but never question ends.

Hence the importance of hitting targets rather than transcending them. Tony Bennett, for one, has hinted at the partial culpability of cultural studies for this situation by pointing out that the subject owes its existence to "the sphere of government and social regulation to which it has usually supposed itself opposed".

It was not always thus. The origin of cultural studies, in the work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson, was concerned with the serious study of class and culture and aimed to give a voice to those whom history had silenced. Founded by Hoggart in 1964, the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University analysed the ways people negotiated the meanings of cultural artefacts but, in the process, it lost sight of class. Without a theory of exploitation, cultural studies became virtually indistinguishable from the ideology of free-market capitalism: both want to junk the past, both are apparently against hierarchies and elitism and both promote consumption as an expression of identity. The "remarkable future" that Williams predicted for the subject, of "taking the best we can in intellectual work... to people for whom it is not a way of life" - can you hear the Arnoldian echo? - has evaporated. Where once cultural studies championed the oppressed, now it proclaims that they were really always free. And where it once hoped to give those on the margin a hearing, it now imposes its own meaning on their activities. Are single mothers on council estates, ethnic minorities, the huge army of contract workers and the unemployed really engaged in semiotic warfare when they go shopping? The cultural studies enthusiast would say so.

Claims are made in both anthologies that "consumption is characterised by the production of highly variable local identities", and that fashion is "a step towards increasing autonomy or individualism in dress". But no evidence for these claims is offered - perhaps because their banality hardly demands they be empirically verified.

But then cultural studies is not too bothered about facts, otherwise it would surely have had something to say about the third of Britons who live in poverty and the 60 per cent who earn below the national average wage. From 1979 to 1992, the salaries of the highest paid grew by 50 per cent while those of the lowest fell to what they were in 1975. Of the £12 billion of welfare cuts made under the Thatcher and Major governments, £8 billion was used to fund tax cuts for the rich. A similar story is found in America where the richest 1 per cent of the country increased their share of the national wealth from 20.5 per cent in 1979 to 35.7 per cent in 1997, producing a polarisation of income not seen since the 1920s. While stock-market players got rich, thousands lost their jobs due to downsizing, outsourcing and union bashing. In Britain, in the meantime, Parliament passed a series of draconian measures: the Public Order Act (1986), Trade Union Act (1992), Criminal Justice Act (1994) and Security Service Act (1996), all aimed at stifling opposition. Now we are faced with the abolition of trial by jury and ever-greater surveillance. And what was cultural studies up to all this time? Telling us that shopping was really a subversive activity.

So have things changed? Has cultural studies caught up with the market society, at last recognised that the ubiquity of business culture might be worthy of its attention? Has the subject at last reached the point where it can reflect more critically on its own development? There are some contributors in both these volumes who are aware of these wider contexts and how cultural studies needs to take account of them. Linda McDowell notes in British Cultural Studies that as more women have entered the market place, income inequality has grown and there is less time for leisure or family obligations; but she concludes that you will look in vain to see these issues addressed in contemporary soap operas. David Sibley sees the Criminal Justice Act as part of a much wider attempt by the state to restrict access to particular places, to police dissidents and "even to eliminate those who threaten an avowedly stable and harmonious society". Politics is the theme of Linda Merrick's piece, which examines different forms of protest and their effectiveness, and her long-term optimism that an alliance of "tribalism and the internet" may yet be a force for change is echoed in Graham Murdock's analysis of the struggle to keep open the new electronic "commons".

In the Companion , Richard Maxwell refuses to accept that cultural studies and political economy are two separate spheres, and his account of their relation is compulsive reading. But he is forced to admit that the two did come apart in the 1980s and, in the 1990s, the demand that students be thought of as customers led to a "less politically engaged" form of cultural studies that produced "works that were congenial with a market-conforming popular culture". Maxwell concludes by asking the practitioners of cultural studies to think about political economy "as a part of their own project again". Jorge Mariscal has already made a start, detailing how the business world has been at the forefront of foreign-language instruction and the development of "diversity", co-opting that much-loved term of cultural studies for the benefit of "the new corporate military industrial complex". His assertion that the latest fashions in theory "fit easily into modes of knowledge production as understood by privately funded think-tanks" that are not accountable to university departments, deserves to be taken very seriously. And speaking of universities, how does so subversive a subject as cultural studies reconcile its radical agenda with an increasingly authoritarian and administrative one? Are its practitioners not troubled by the ever-increasing tension between free thought and market forces?

Alas, no. For most contributors here, it is business as usual. Those in British Cultural Studies apply cultural studies "perspectives to a range of phenomena in current British culture and society", while those in the Companion are committed, in another welcome addition to the dictionary of neologisms, to the "deprovincialisation" of departmental boundaries. What has happened to cultural studies' much-vaunted attachment to context? Has it gone global like capitalism? Its colonising ambitions mean that no subject is safe, not even archaeology, which is urged to get with the cultural studies beat.

Both volumes are well organised. British Cultural Studies has three sections, on Britishness, heritage and lifestyles, with a somewhat quirky chronology at the back. Whoever compiled it mentions the first recording of Gypsies in Scotland in 1505 but not Stephen Lawrence's murder in 1993. The Companion has three sections too, on disciplines, places and issues, and an extremely useful bibliographical resource. Both books will find a home on library shelves but do they say anything new? I think not. I rest my case on two essays on royalty in British Cultural Studies. Others may enjoy learning that representations of the monarchy are analogous to soap operas or that the rise of celebrity culture has modified the way the royals project themselves, but this seems irrelevant next to their fabulous wealth and the fact that as long we have a monarchy we are subjects, not citizens. To remark that "the pomp and privileges of symbolic leadership can be ambivalently appropriated in ways that confirm the satisfactions of the ordinariness of everyday life" strikes me as an apology for the existing order. I prefer Milton's view that the aim of study is to improve our estate and not, as cultural studies seems to be doing these days, to reconcile ourselves to it.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

British Cultural Studies: Geography, Nationality and Identity

Editor - David Morley and Kevin Robins
ISBN - 0 19 874206 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £17.99
Pages - 522

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