Why I think we should end apartheid between English and cultural studies

July 18, 2003

Catherine Belsey, Professor of English at Cardiff University and chair of the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory. She will give a plenary lecture at the "English - The Condition of the Subject" conference at the University of London this week.

Once upon a time, everyone knew what English was about. There were poems, plays and novels, traditionally regarded as great, and students would be better people for reading them.

But things began to change. Feminists added forgotten writing by women, not necessarily for its virtue so much as for what it revealed about the hidden lives of half the population; a multicultural criticism took account of works by and about the lives of ethnic minorities and slaves; queer studies looked for pointers in fiction to whatever lay beyond a prim heterosexist propriety.

As English departments move towards the analysis of culture in this way, the isolation of written texts no longer makes much sense. If gender relations are the issue, for instance, then portraits, domestic spaces, costume, rituals or popular songs might all be just as revealing. This material is no longer there as simply explanatory background to the great texts. On the contrary, it too asks to be interpreted. English specialists, remorselessly encroaching on all the other humanities disciplines, are in the process of becoming cultural critics.

Some of the impetus for their expansionism has come from cultural studies.

This discipline was born in the 1960s of a dissatisfaction with the elitism and conservatism of English and the literary preoccupation with high culture and the past. What arose was a subject that focused on popular culture in the present.

The ironic consequence of arguments for expanding English was the division of cultural analysis between two disciplinary camps, cultural studies (brash, up-to-date and lively) and English (posh and stuffy).

Now that English has let go of its stuffiness and embraced diversity, that disciplinary division begins to give way at just the moment when the distinction between high and popular culture is no longer so clear. Baz Luhrmann marketed his film Romeo+Juliet to an audience that would never have thought of going to Stratford upon Avon. The tabloids do not hesitate to pronounce on conceptual art.

At the same time, the middle classes don't see themselves as slumming when they view Hollywood movies by Quentin Tarantino. Nor was the past as resolutely stratified as we like to think. Shakespeare's plays, performed at court, were also great popular successes well into the 19th century.

Why, then, maintain apartheid between English and cultural studies? I propose that we reunite the territory under the name of cultural criticism.

We shall need a period of truth and reconciliation, when English struggles with its residual impulse to give authors grades and cultural studies reflects on its difference from sociology. And then the future will belong to cultural criticism, as the present does already for many English scholars.

In Cardiff seven years ago, we decided to offer undergraduates the same scope we were so happily appropriating for ourselves in our research.

Cultural criticism began as a half-degree, but from September it will be available as single honours. The syllabus excludes nothing cultural: we look critically at Canaletto and cornflakes boxes, old tombs and The Tate Modern. All aspects of culture, past and present, are our province. We focus on cultural objects and texts - visual, oral, aural and written - and the demanding range of skills involved in interpreting them.

Of course, no degree could cover the whole of culture. But most English departments have long since given up on coverage. And no single teacher could possess all the skills involved. But we're learning. The enterprise is explicitly collaborative and the course is selective and differentiated.

Above all, it is held together by what English departments do best: detailed, attentive, critical reading of the material.

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