All bingo, Barbie and Barthes?

March 10, 1995

Cultural studies has failed, Colin MacCabe tells John Davies. Cultural studies has failed. Or so Colin MacCabe, head of research and education at the British Film Institute claims. He has identified two "major problems" with the relatively new discipline which, in the past 25 years has swept all before it, both in Britain's new universities and, particularly, in the United States.

First, MacCabe argued at a London conference last month, the subject has run up a cul-de-sac, concentrating almost entirely on contemporary culture. Cultural studies as practised in British and American universities lacks any sense of historical perspective. To illustrate his point, he recalled the circumstances surrounding the setting up, in Birmingham in 1964, of the first university centre for the study of culture. "When the centre was set up (with money donated by Penguin following the Lady Chatterley trial) the classics faculty objected to it being called a centre for cultural studies on the grounds that cultural studies already existed - it was called classics. This objection was met by renaming the centre's concerns 'contemporary cultural studies.'"

MacCabe described this anecdote as telling. Cultural studies' analysis of the contemporary scene is, he says, "almost always divorced from the analysis of traditional forms with a remarkable impoverishment of both".

The second shortcoming of the subject, related to the first, is that "questions of comparative value" are almost always absent. The orthodoxy of the last quarter century, said MacCabe, is one in which "evaluation has increasingly vanished from the academic study of art and culture." Qualitative comparisons have become "almost impossible to pose, except in the terminally stupid forms of 'We want Shakespeare not soap opera' or 'Keats is better than Dylan'".

Speaking to The THES this week MacCabe elaborated his argument. "Cultural studies has resolutely avoided questions of discrimination and evaluation which I think are crucial to any analysis of contemporary culture."

Indeed MacCabe would deny that cultural studies is a discipline at all. "It's more an area in which the disciplines get reconfigured," he says. It is where "the relations between academic knowledge and the world get restated".

MacCabe is still perhaps best known for being the subject of a row that split the Cambridge English faculty some 15 years ago. In what Frank Kermode, then professor of literature at Cambridge, described as "a rather base conspiracy" traditionalists lined up to deny promotion to this assistant lecturer who had dared to use "new" ways of analysing literature using insights gained from, for example, structuralist theory. And in his critique of cultural studies MacCabe continues to invoke theory. "Cultural studies has in some ways replaced theory, certainly in the United States. Indeed cultural studies is in many ways a kind of solution to various problems that theory had run into by the early 1980s. But theoretical reflection on specific problems is absolutely indispensable."

There are now around 40 British universities or colleges offering degree courses in some form of cultural studies. Their number exceeds astronomy, say, or Portuguese. Yet, it is hard to pin down a definition of cultural studies except in the most general terms. The journal Cultural Studies describes its field as "dedicated to the notion that the study of cultural processes, and especially of popular culture, is important, complex and politically rewarding". In his 1990 book British Cultural Studies: an Introduction Graeme Turner writes that "the main interest of cultural studies is no longer simply in texts, or even in institutions or social practices; rather it lies in the investigation of those complex processes that articulate any or all such elements within and into culture."

Beyond such abstractions there would seem to be a general agreement that the culture studied is not the "high" 19th-century culture of Matthew Arnold's "the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world". Rather it is a more everyday culture that "cult studs" examines - not only popular entertainment such as EastEnders, Hollywood movies and rock music, but also shopping, cooking or the clothes people choose to wear. Whatever Colin MacCabe might say, it is an approach that seems to be popular with students.

As an academic subject, it has its origins in the late 1950s/early 1960s when seminal books such as Raymond Williams's Culture and Society and Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy extended the practices of English literary criticism to cultural phenomena such as popular magazines, while E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963) took a historian's view of culture.

The Frankfurt School, Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, semiotics - all were assimilated into the growing discipline, which attracted a wide range of scholars - from psychology and anthropology to literature and sociology. The mass media became a major focus of study; not only for the messages they put across but also for their audiences, who were seen as not just passive "receivers".

Meanwhile, especially in the US, challenges to the old academic certainties from feminist and ethnic minorities often sheltered under the umbrella of cultural studies. As Stefan Collini, a fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge, put it in the TLS: "Cultural studies looks at the alleged remoteness and narrowness of traditional university curricula and says 'Get real'."

A view that even Colin MacCabe echoes: "Contemporary culture is effectively impossible to analyse, not least because it cuts across the humanities and social sciences in ways that make it a very resistant object to disciplines that were constituted at the end of the 19th century."

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