Moving into the age of maturity

The Cultural Studies Reader. Second Edition - Decoding Culture - Cultural Studies - Modernity and Postmodern Culture. First Edition - Studying Culture
May 26, 2000

Chris Barker's Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice is a "language-game" account of the "discursive formation" of cultural studies. Although the book opens with an examination of the foundations of cultural studies, most of the text is focused on contemporary theory - what Barker refers to as "sites of cultural studies". The book ends with a discussion of the contribution Richard Rorty's pragmatism could and should make to cultural studies. There is a sense in which cultural studies has always been a pragmatic field of inquiry; since the late 1950s the argument has been made that analysis must always differentiate between the commodities made available by the culture industries and what people pragmatically do with these commodities. Barker, however, proposes much more than this: his is an argument for putting Rortian pragmatism at the theoretical centre of cultural studies.

Barker's book is impressively wide ranging. Inevitably, there are parts of it with which readers will disagree. I was surprised by the absence of Janice Radway and Laura Mulvey. I would also disagree with his assessment of the use of hegemony in cultural studies (not only is it not the same as dominant ideology, it is a direct challenge to it). I also think he is mistaken with regard to the work of Roland Barthes (polysemy is not something Barthes discovered when he became post-structuralist, it is a crucial aspect of the argument of Mythologies ). But these are minor disagreements, easily outweighed by the book's considerable contribution to our understanding of cultural studies.

Studying Culture: A Practical Introduction by Judy Giles and Tim Middleton is a very useful introduction to the study of culture, with accessibly written chapters on culture, identity and difference, representation, history, spaces and places, high culture/low culture, subjectivity, consumption; it also contains case studies on suburbia, and culture and technology. The book will be of interest to students and teachers on all undergraduate programmes where culture is the object of study. Firmly focused on the practicalities of teaching culture, the book is organised accordingly ("its format is interactive"): readers are directed from discussion of particular topics to readings and activities related to these topics.

Simon During's widely used collection The Cultural Studies Reader is an excellent assemblage of essays, containing work by many of the leading academics in the field. As During explains, changes have been made to the second edition (seven essays removed; 18 added) to make the book better reflect contemporary cultural studies (more work on science, sexuality, transnational culture, policy and political economy). During proposes three tasks for what he calls an "engaged cultural studies": it must remain political; it must remain distinct in the context of a general "turn to culture" in the humanities and social sciences; and finally it should not be a discipline in a traditional sense, but become "a field within multidisciplinarityI an area to work in alongside others, usually more highly institutionalised disciplines". During's third task has always been popular with academics situated in one of the "more highly institutionalised disciplines".

Jim McGuigan's Modernity and Postmodern Culture is a fascinating, informative and accessible meditation on ways of thinking for and against postmodernism. While McGuigan is "sceptical of postmodern claims", he is nevertheless prepared to countenance that "there is some truth in them and that they are important signs of the time". The book includes worthwhile discussions on architecture, the Enlightenment, globalisation, identities, the risk society, the Sokal affair; there are also informed discussions of the work of Jean Baudrillard, Ulrich Beck, Manuel Castells, Anthony Giddens, Jurgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, and Jean-Francois Lyotard. McGuigan is especially clear on one thing: whatever changes have occurred, which may or may not justify the need for new terms of critical description, one grand narrative still holds sway - capitalism.

Decoding Culture: Theory and Method in Cultural Studies by Andrew Tudor offers a stimulating overview of some of the key approaches, positions and debates that have characterised the development of cultural studies. Written from a "rather sceptical and somewhat distanced position", marked by "fascination" and "fury", Tudor's book seeks to answer three questions:

"what is cultural studies, where did it come from, and what are its logics?" In just over 200 pages this may seem a rather ambitious project. However, the key theme (and perhaps the real question) around which the book is organised is "the relationship between structure and agency", which Tudor describes (quite rightly) as "the fundamental issue for any kind of cultural study". Although readers will recognise the terrain he maps, they may at times disagree with what he identifies as the landmarks (I think screen theory is much less central to the story of cultural studies), or the absence of landmarks (the surprising omission of "articulation"), or how he understands the landmarks themselves (I think hegemony is about "structure" and "agency"). He describes cultural studies as the "bastard child ... of structuralism". Whether legitimate or not, I think Marxism has a better claim to parentage. Although I agree with his "solution" (taken from Giddens who got it from Marx) - that is, the need to find ways to keep in active play both structure and agency - I would argue that this has always been central to cultural studies. Most of its moments of "crisis" have been focused on a sense that agency has become detached from structure or structure is obliterating agency.

There is now a real sense, confirmed by these five books (all of which deserve a wide readership), that cultural studies is coming to what Paul Willis, in the foreword to Barker's Cultural Studies , describes as "a kind of maturity". Like other disciplines before it (English and sociology are good examples), cultural studies is beginning to move beyond its moment of self-definition (and the bitter disputes this usually entails) to the establishment of a recognised field of inquiry, consisting of different ways of working - a healthy mix of competing methodologies, theories, perspectives and positions - focused on the same object of study: the relationship between culture and power.

John Storey is professor of cultural studies, University of Sunderland.

The Cultural Studies Reader. Second Edition

Editor - Simon During
ISBN - 0 415 13753 5 and 13754 3
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
Pages - 610

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