Readers are always fraught with problems and picking fault with them is easy money. In attempting to corral a limited number of disparate essays together to sum up the state of a discipline or topic, they can never fully achieve their highest goals. At most, they capture their editors' critical sense of the best bits: the high-flying definitions and debates - constrained by permissions, other publishing limitations, as well as by an editor's personal choices, foibles and knowledge gaps. The flipside to the problems of producing readers comes, of course, in buying and reading them. Readers are popular with publishers because they are assumed to be popular with students (and teachers, who could craft a course around them if they wish).
So a reader is supposed to make everyone happy: the selected authors are chuffed to have been chosen for inclusion; the editors have an easy job cherry-picking their favourite essays on a topic; teachers can write courses that require only one book purchase; students can get that one book and know they have got the course covered; and publishers can shift the kinds of units they always dreamed of - all is for the best, in the best of all possible textbook worlds. If only it was that straightforward...
Which brings me to the readers at hand. All weighing in at about the 200-page mark, the four in this Cultural Criticism series share a common architecture and design but target different areas of the "cultural field". Catherine Belsey attempts the tricky business of defining culture and cultural criticism, a tricky task that is made plain by the selection of essays in each reader and by their individual and collective coverage of themes: images, history, gender, posthumanism.
Julia Thomas's Reading Images deals with the hot topic of visual culture, addressing the processes of looking, reading, the image and the gaze. Its essayists include Foucault (twice, on the panopticon and on Las Meninas ) and Derrida, Lacan and Benjamin - a heavyweight roll-call of theorists, in other words. As such, it is successful in gesturing towards different ways of seeing (and being seen), though the heavyweights can also be hard going. Readers are assisted by the useful chapter summaries and glossary (again, common across all four titles). Sitting alongside other recent readers and introductions in and to visual culture, Reading Images holds its own. It is a welcome addition to the emerging field of visual cultural studies and will be a good place to start from.
Anna Tripp's Gender enters an already crowded terrain but stresses that it is more than a reader on feminism. It veers towards constructionist accounts of femininity and masculinity and deconstructions of the sex/gender matrix. This succeeds in giving Gender a competitive edge but it is a reader more likely to be used in part than in sum. It has a good section on masquerade and performance, for example, and three essays on masculinity (by Lynne Segal, Jonathan Rutherford and Homi Bhabha), which it is handy to have together. But given the bulging and overflowing shelves it is seeking to share, Gender is likely to be able to find only a limited space of its own.
Reading the Past , edited by Tamsin Spargo, introduces a tightly focused set of essays based on new historicism and cultural materialism, making it usable and useful. The collection has an eclecticism reflective of the kinds of pieces written in these "movements", straddling history and literature and providing a tidy entry into their ways of writing and reading the past. While there is not a huge undergraduate market for these ideas, Spargo's book will serve students very well. It should encourage those in cultural studies whose view of the past does not extend back beyond the 1960s to take history (if not History) seriously.
Spargo has done a great job; we meet Foucault and Benjamin again, alongside Stephen Greenblatt, Carolyn Steedman and Keith Jenkins, whose "Why bother with history?" receives its answer here in - to borrow from Billie Piper - "Because we want to". Finally, we come to Neil Badmington's Posthumanism , which simultaneously excited and perplexed me. It seems out of kilter with the other three in the series, at least from the outside. In fact, it is more like them than not since its concerns are the critique of humanism as much as the idea of posthumanism. No surprise to find Foucault as well as Althusser and Fanon (though all in very short bursts) before moving into more squarely post-human terrain with Donna Haraway, Scott Bukatman and further adventures in sci-fi.
It therefore neatly contextualises present thrills or worries over the meaning of being human, refusing to reduce these to either technophilia or technophobia. While it might be an overstatement (though typical of book jackets) to state that post-humanism is "an attempt to come to terms with one of the most pressing issues facing contemporary society", Badmington's collection summarises the question of what it means to be human and/or post-human from a range of perspectives, making it a reader to use across courses in cultural studies, philosophy and elsewhere - though probably more as a prosthesis to other, more central texts.
Given the interest in using the idea of post-humanism to think with, however, this reader can probably ease its way onto reading lists across the humanities (or, perhaps, the post-humanities).
David Bell is reader in cultural studies, Staffordshire University.
Readers in Cultural Criticism: Gender. First Edition
Editor - Anna Tripp Palgrave
ISBN - 0 333 77036 6 and 77037 4
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £47.50 and £15.99
Pages - 217