Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cultural Studies' primordial soup: 1950's working class England and some influences from the continent

One way to understand the inception of Cultural Studies is to take a close look at the historical and social circumstances surrounding its birth in the 1950's.

1950's british economy was turning more and more 'affluent' with unemployment decreasing and with the working-class joining the consumerist celebration which promised to better everyone's life with more and better products. The disjuncture of blue and white collar workers was slowly diminishing both in the economical sense and the geographical sense with new housing programs. But also meant the fragmentation of the traditional working class community life which was replaced by submission to what the Frankfurt school termed as the "culture industry". This led to the perception of culture as a dynamic process with a direct, previously denied, relation to politics. This led the first cultural studies researchers to examine culture in terms of its political functions. Antonio Gramsci's constitutive term of "hegemony", invisible domination, was widely influential and was turned into cultural studies' prime area of concern. Cultural studies began then to examine the way certain discourse formations were functioning and gaining dominance in society to the point of presenting themselves as ultimately "right" or "natural', what is known, following Foucault, as "articulation". With society losing its "natural" characteristics, hegemony as a culturally formative function was subjected to the critique of cultural studies.

Cultural studies' initial tendencies were towards semiotic analysis of cultural products and texts, the production, circulation and function in society. Another rising analytic tradition in the 70's cultural studies was that of structuralism and the examination of individuals as constructs of ideology and cultural formation. Ideology, following Althusser, was seen as the mechanism which reproduces the cooperation of subaltern classes with the exploitative capitalistic relation of production by means of "naturalizing" what is essentially a human contingent assembly of socio-political relations. Ideology according to this view is a mirroring function which in a sense "tells" the individual who he is, and consequently, how he should behave.  

When these continental theories met with the aforesaid changes in the English working class life, cultural studies found their initial steps as a both academic and politic movement. But these forms of critical engagement did not last long, and cultural studies soon moved on to reject some of the ingredients of old Neo-Marxist French thought such as Althusser, as described in the following articles.

Aside from Gramsci, theoretical legacies inherited from the continent such as those of Althusser of Foucault did not gain much heed on the British side of cultural studies for their too theoretical, too deterministic tendencies which were quelled with the little more "down to earth" tendencies of cultural studies. That being said, the structuralist as well as poststructuralist traditions definitely left their mark on cultural studies, especially the notion of meaning as constructed out of difference with other meanings and not by a direct referential relation to reality. Such notions were developed into an interest in the function, as well as evolution and mutation, of cultural signifiers that were perceived in their polysemity. Cultural studies also saw the "play of signs" as essentially a political one in the form of no less than a struggle over meaning.