Thursday, December 16, 2010

"The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities" by Stuart Hall – article review and summary

Stuart Hall's "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities" is a retrospective account of the origins of cultural studies at the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies. He immediately opens by noting that cultural studies are an interdisciplinary field, "a conjectural practice" which stems from different backgrounds and therefore should not be subjected to categorization ("cultural studies is never one thing"). The second aspect of cultural studies that Hall stresses is its critical nature, even and especially towards itself.

Stuart Hall argues that cultural studies have emerged out of a crisis in the humanities, from which most of the initial cultural studies researchers came.  The condescending tone of "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities" is apparent here with utterances like "most of us had to leave the humanities in order to do serious work in it". And the humanities are indeed, for Hall, the "bad guys" which deeply resented the appearance of cultural studies. By referring to the humanities' antagonism towards cultural studies Hall wishes to expose its false claims of being "an integral formation".

For Stuart Hall, cultural studies originated in the debate regarding the nature of social change in the affluent, mass media culture of postwar Britain. This debate, associated with the first New Left, regarded works like Richard Hoggart's monumental "The Uses of Literacy", "Culture and Society" by Raymond Williams and "The Making of the English Working Class" by Edward Thompson. These writers, like Hall, also came from marginal positions in the academy, such as adult education, an Hall says that their ways of deliberation came from that direct contact with "the dirty outside world".

In "The Emergence of Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities" essentially heroically narrativizes the establishment of the cultural studies center at the University of Birmingham as a narrative of struggle. He colorfully describes hostile attitudes from both so-called "parents" of cultural studies, sociology and literature, along with material hardships of finance and location.

With cultural studies being the protagonist of Hall's narrative, the antagonists were the "Arnoldian project" manifested in the work of F.R.Leavis. Humanities back then were for Hall "a very controlled conversation among a very controlled number of people" who were asking each other "this is so, is it not?" without anybody having permission to say "no, it isn't".  But Leavis for Hall is not the complete "bad guy" for he was the first to take issues of culture seriously, and is therefore hailed as the herald of cultural studies. In other words, Leavis was asking the right questions, he was just giving the wrong conservative elitist answers. 
Hall savors the utter miscomprehension with which Williams The Long Revolution was received in the academic world. This is related to cultural studies' initial task of "unmasking what is considered to be the unstated presuppositions of the humanist tradition", its ideology and its alleged disinterested knowledge.
After negetivilly defining cultural studies against traditional humanities, Hall turns to discussing the positive work of cultural studies, and that was seriously theorizing the concept of culture as an object of contemplation. The relation between culture and politics was the first field to be concurred through "a series of raids on other disciplinary terrains" such as sociology, humanities and anthropology, giving birth to the cultural studies' tradition of interdisciplinary practice. 

A break from the traditional humanities also meant a break from its bibliography, and a here Hall notes that cultural studies could not have happened without the translation of European work conduct by the New Left Review. Without Gramsci, the Frankfurt School and others, cultural studies students wouldn't have had anything to read.

Hall notes that at the beginning of cultural studies as a academic movement it was impossible to teach it as a discipline or an established body of knowledge. Instead cultural studies started out as a cooperation of teachers and students that was manifested in the pedagogical methods of the Birmingham School for cultural studies. Hall also stresses the usefulness of cultural studies knowledge as politically engaged with the "out there in the dirty world". That, the criteria for work done in cultural studies was work on things "that mattered", things that arise from the researcher's experience, or in other words: Gramsci's notion of the "organic intellectual" and the transformation of knowledge into practice. As Hall puts it, cultural studies saw itself as a "tiny piece of a hegemonic struggle". Knowledge produced in cultural studies is not valuable on its own account, but has to be transmitted to society in order to be relevant. In other words, the practice of cultural studies is to bring theory and practice together.

As for the "crisis of humanities" spoken about in the title, Stuart Hall relates to what is known as "the standards debate", an attack on the free public education system and what is being taught in history and literature. The lack of basic English skills and knowledge of the English history among British students is being widely lamented about. This lamentation, Hall argues, is connected with Thatcherism, "a profound crisis of national identity" and the erosion of the nation-state. Under the threat of "others", Thatcherism as attempting to find out who can still be "English", and these "truly English" people are reduced to only a handful of Oxford scholars after Thatcherism excluded virtually everybody, including its own "uneducated" youth. And in order to fight off this sense of losing the English identity, a national curriculum and standard system is being imposed and the humanities are "invoked as the last bastion of the liberal defensive operation". England took to the Falklands in order to maintain its past as a possible future.  This identity crisis is exactly what cultural studies wanted to figure out when it first began, and so the crisis of humanities to which cultural studies owe its emergence is really the crisis of Brithishness. The project of cultural studies is to theorize these processes and find ways for the excluded to have their part in the national culture and community.

Still, cultural studies are a minor academic vocation, and while the humanities are not, they did take on some the agenda contested by cultural studies. On the other hand, while a lot of people nowadays talk the cultural studies "talk", not all of them also do the "walk" part of the equation by taking on the larger historical and social contexts.