Thursday, December 2, 2010

What is cultural studies anyway by Richard Johnson – article review and summary


In his 1986\7 article "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?" Richard Johnson tries to address his title question in a sort of a mix between a descriptive and normative strategy. At the beginning of his article it seems Richard Johnson is equating the question "what is cultural studies anyway?" with the question of "should cultural studies aspire to be an academic discipline?". This question is important because Cultural Studies reject, in a sense, any attempt to codify its methodology for its "mix and match" inclinations and interdisciplinary traditions. Richard Johnson stresses criticism as an attitude essential for cultural studies as something that evades methodological codification. Johnson reminds us that cultural studies in many ways were born when literary criticism turned its attention to virtually any human product which bears meaning, that is the historical extension of the denotation of "text".

Richard Johnson shows how developments in cultural studies coincide with similar trends in history which began to show interest in mass culture. Marxism, obviously, is mentioned as claiming fatherhood of cultural studies, though if anything this discipline is founded on harsh criticism towards old fashioned "red" thinking, with the formerly hailed Stalin now taking all the heat. And on the corpses that ran through the Gulags there arisen a new strand of neo-marxism in the 70's. in short, cultural studies were in a sense formed when Althusser and Gramsci were translated into English.

Therefore, Richard Johnson proceeds to ask about the inheritance of cultural studies from Marxism and he suggests a triad of premises. Cultural studies' first inheritance from Marxism is the notion the "cultural processes are intimately connected with social relations" (p.39). The second premise suggested by Johnson is that "culture involves power and helps to produce assymmetries in the abilities of individuals and social groups to define and realise their needs" (ibid). the third is that "culture is neither an autonomous nor an externally determined field, but a site of social differences and struggles" (ibid). Another Marxist contribution to Cultural Studies, Johnson notes, is the work of The Communist Party Historians which saw everyday common life as their object of interest.    

Richard Johnson also traces other influences that contributed to the rise of Cultural Studies that converged at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural studies (CCCS) such as the literary criticism of F.R.Leavis that first related the conventionalist nature of "High" culture and his successors, Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart which have shifted the discussion of art-society relations to "lower" culture with which Cultural Studies have been preoccupied ever since. 

"Production" is of course to a key concept in Cultural studies and Richard Johnson's attempt to address to question of "what is cultural studies anyway?". For him, what is unique for Cultural Studies and Birmingham school (CCCS) is the treatment of production in the wake and context of larger social. Cultural and political processes and especially the space and time of both production and consumption, with latter not necessarily determined by the former.   

Richard Johnson is not opposed to formalist textual analysis methods residues in cultural thought as some other more postmodern thinkers. Though he does claim the form alone does not determine function. He notes that I understand formalism negatively, not as abstraction of forms from texts, but as the abstraction of texts from the other moments" (p. 62). The approach which Johnson terms Advanced Semiology has led to notion of narrative creating a stance or subject position towards them in the reader (narratives or images always imply or construct a position or positions from which they are to be read or viewed  (p.66)). However he argues that such subject positions are generated only be formal features (such a "readable" or "writeable" in Barthes's thought) but also by the somewhat unforeseeable idiosyncratic circumstances of their consumption. He notes that "the text-as-produced is a different object from the text as read" (p.58)

What Richard Johnson seems to be after is some formation or formulation of a paradigm for Cultural studies that while guide its curse, questions and modes of answering, what is the Althusserian view might be termed "problematic", thus enabling to view at "if not as unity, at least as a whole" (p.41). he also takes notice of the field's inherit left wing politics while noting that "[cultural studies] form a part of the very circuits which it seeks to describe" (p.53).

In his final maneuver in "What is Cultural Studies Anyway" Richard Johnson sums up the three prevailing approaches for Cultural Studies: production based-studies, text-based studies and studies of lived cultures. Each of these approaches isolate a different moment in the life cycle of a cultural object, thus missing out on the big picture. Therefore Johnson sums up by saying that "It is not therefore an adequate strategy for the future just to add together the three sets of approaches, using each for its appropriate moment. This would not work without transformations of each approach" (p.73)


Johnson, Richard. 1986/7. "What is Cultural Studies Anyway?". Social Text 16: 38-80.

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