File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0106, message 27

Date: Wed, 06 Jun 2001 18:57:44 -0400
Subject: Post-modern, Post-Marxist etc. comments on philosophy and culture

Steve, Eric, and All,

Here's a glimpse of some topics discussed on the List fairly recently.  This
is an excerpt  from a much longer discussion at:

Leavis's argument is a classic statement of inegalitarian reasoning,
diametricaly opposed to what would become the cultural studies project with
its insistence that all men are equally entitled to be taken seriously as
consumers of culture. Leavis argued, so Williams maintains, that
in any period it is upon a very small minority that the discerning
appreciation of art and literature depends: it is. . .only a few who are
capable of unprompted, first-hand judgement . . . the minority capable not
only of appreciating Dante, Shakespeare, Donne, Baudelaire, Hardy (to take
major instances) but of recognizing their latest successors constitute the
consciousness of the race (or of a branch of it) at a given time. ...Upon
this minority depends our power of profiting by the finest human experience
of the past; they keep alive the subtlest and most perishable parts of
tradition. (1958, p. 253)
Williams and Hoggart and the cultural studies tradition generally directed
their initial efforts toward dethroning the Eliot/Leavis tradition and the
aristocratic notions it implied as well as toward broadening the study of
English as a series of great literary masterpieces to include a sociology of
literature. As one former student at the Centre has put it, ``cultural
studies.. . defined its separation from its parent by its populism... [and]
thus consigned itself to institutional marginality'' (Sparks, 1977, p. 8).
Indeed, at least according to Hall,5 heated opposition to the establishment
of the Centre came at first from the discipline of sociology. He recalls
that Hoggart's inaugural address ``triggered off a blistering attack
specifically from sociology,'' which ``reserved a proprietary claim over the
territory'' earmarked for the cultural studies project. Hall said that ``the
opening of the Centre was greeted by a letter from two social scientists who
issued a sort of warning: ``if Cultural Studies overstepped its proper
limits and took in the study of contemporary society (not just its texts),
without `proper' scientific [that is, quasi-scientific] controls, it would
provoke reprisals for illegitimately crossing the territorial boundary''
(1984a, p. 21).

Embedded in what Hall has characterized as ``the structural-functionalist
methodology of the American model,'' British sociology at the time the
Centre was founded had a strong empiricist bias. Neither such a positivistic
social science nor traditional English Studies, with its emphasis on the
isolated examination of great works of art, were compatible with the
Centre's intellectual objectives. These objectives involved investigating
culture (broadly defined) in its historical context; examining new
phenomenological (or ethnomethodological) methods of inquiry, based on
Weberian notions of verstehen; and employing an interpretive, hermeneutic
approach to questions of meaning (1984a, p. 23).

All accounts are unanimous in acknowledging that Hoggart's agenda for the
Centre arose in part as a response to two ``formative'' texts published in
the late 1950s and early 1960s: Hoggart's own The Uses of Literacy (1957)
and Williams's Culture and Society (1958). Then, too, in the first few years
after the establishment of the Centre, Williams's The Long Revolution (1961)
and E. P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1964) were,
according to all accounts, highly influential in determining the direction
of cultural studies' concerns. These texts had in common a concern with the
social and cultural plight of the working class, with redefining traditional
elitist notions of education, and with definining a ``common culture''
expansive enough to include popular or mass mediated culture.

Gradually, in the nearly three decades since cultural studies was
established, its focus has shifted. By the end of its first decade, it had
aligned itself with Marxism, as Marxism had been redefined and reinterpreted
since the early 1960s. Marx's emphasis on class relations was fully
compatible with the Centre's focus on popular culture as a reflection of the
working class's implicit struggle for self-expression.

Relatively early on in the Centre's history, mass media content seemed to
provide a source of that ``common culture'' which Raymond Williams sought to
identify in From Culture to Revolution (1968). Later on in the 1970s, as the
Centre's focus shifted under Stuart Hall, media texts were looked upon as a
source of examples of how ideology inscribed the ideas of dominant groups in
society. For the past decade or so, mass media content, language, and
subcultural practices have provided areas in which Gramsci's notion of
hegemony could be examined concretely.

The re-reading of Gramsci in the late 1970s, in light of race and gender
studies, did a lot to set in motion the Centre's reassessment of popular
culture--seen until that time as merely an ideological vehicle for
inflicting dominant paradigms of experience and certain culture- and
class-based assumptions advantageous to the status quo. As the Centre's
focus shifted in the 1980s to viewing popular culture as a site of potential
resistance and conflict, it detailed a ``history of hegemony'' as hegemony
is manifested in such cultural expressions as reggae music and magazines
like Jackie, which provided ``raw material for thousands of girl-readers
[to] make their own re-appropriations'' of its contents (Johnson, 1983, p.

Cultural studies is difficult to define succinctly and, according to Stuart
Hall, this difficulty is intentional--that is, cultural studies prides
itself on having no doctrine per se and no ``house approved'' methodology.
It is rather self-consciously conceived of as being highly contextual--a
variable, flexible, critical mode of analysis. Perhaps this is one reason
why (what Hall has termed) the ``un-fully theorized nature of [Gramsci's]
work'' lends itself to the Centre's project, making it possible to
``appropriate Gramsci more easily'' (cited from Nelson & Grossberg, 1988, p.

Cultural studies uses ethnographic fieldwork, interviewing, textual and
discourse analysis, and traditional historical methods of research to
investigate a wide variety of communication-related issues, such as what
conceptions of maleness boy scouting in Great Britain are based upon (1984a,
p. 41).6 Cultural studies started, of course, as an ``experiential, even
autobiographical'' method of examining class consciousness and culture
historically and descriptively, becoming more theoretically sophisticated,
abstract, and methodologically diverse as the 1970s unfolded, under the
leadership of Stuart Hall, who was one of the first to ensure structuralist
and semiotic approaches to culture and communication, imported from France,
gained currency. As a Marxist project, the Centre has preserved its concern
with ``lived experience'' by incorporating ethnography--a form of study some
members (e.g., Johnson) opposed as potentially subjective, atheoretical, and
dangerously close to the empiricism of traditional British sociology which
the Centre had been created to counteract (Johnson, 1980). However,
researchers like Willis, Cohen, and Hobson used it to advantage in studies
of subcultural practices and audience studies.

For a time, in the late 1970s, the Centre's incorporation of the ideas of
Althusser, Lacan, de Saussure, Barthes, and, later, Foucault led to heavy
stress on the micro-level operations of text and discourse, as opposed to
the political and institutional analysis and historical focus more
characteristic of its project in the 1980s, under Johnson. During this, the
most esoteric period in the Centre's history, ``the concern [was] with the
way these [sign] systems, treated as texts, structure or position their
(ideal and, more rarely, actual) readers or `subjects' '' (Johnson, 1980, p.

To point to the diversity of the CCCS is not to say that those outside it
have not seen it, at least at times, as tending toward a cogent, even
monolithic point of view which relies on a group of highly specialized
concepts and terms that can be relatively opaque to ordinary users of the
English language. It is striking that, as an intellectual project, cultural
studies can be seen most clearly in terms of what it negates or breaks from.

Stuart Hall has identified four components of this initial `break' with
traditional approaches to the study of communication. First of all, cultural
studies was a break from ``the `behavioristic' emphases of previous research
approaches'' which saw media influence in terms of a direct,
stimulus-response mechanism. At the Centre, the emphasis shifted markedly
toward viewing media as broad, all-pervasive social and political forces,
whose influence was indirect, subtle, and even imperceptible (1984b, p.

Secondly, British cultural studies ``challenged the notions of media texts
as `transparent' bearers of meaning.'' The Centre has consistently called
attention to the structuring potential each medium--including
language--possesses. Whereas McLuhan argued in a broad, formalistic vein
that ``the medium is the message,'' British cultural studies, early on in
the 1970s, examined the semiotics (or sign systems) through which mass
mediated meaning reaches audiences. Influenced by European structuralism,
the Centre published early work by Barthes and Eco in Working Papers in
Cultural Studies and has more recently incorporated some of the discourse
theory of Foucault.

British cultural studies, at its inception, also ``broke with the passive
and undifferentiated conceptions of the `audience' '' in favour of a
detailed examination of the variety of ways messages are decoded by members
of the audience with different social and political orientations.

Fourthly, the Centre broke with the notion of mass culture as an
undifferentiated phenomenon, to initially adopt a view of the mass media as
circulating and cementing ``dominant ideological definitions and
representations'' (Hall, 1984b, p. 118). As in the case of its other three
innovations, British cultural studies has, throughout the years,
consistently maintained its opposition to the monolithic notion of mass
culture it reacted against at its inception.

But if the oppositional thrust of British cultural studies has adhered to
certain broad, discernible contours throughout its history, the scope of its
initial project has changed vastly, as will be discussed more thoroughly in
a later section of this essay. One of the clearest and simplest statements
of its initial focus is reflected in the series of questions Hoggart asked
in his inaugural address in connection with his plea for the establishment
of a ``sociology of literature or of culture.'' These questions, given the
intervening years, appear remarkably uncontaminated by the allusive,
specialized terminology and intellectual eclecticism that permeates the work
of Centre members and British cultural studies currently. The original
issues Hoggart found integral to the cultural studies project are primarily
sociological concerns that would lend themselves readily to empirical
examination of demographic data:

About writers and artists: Where do they come from? How do they become what
they are? What are their financial rewards?
What are the audiences for different forms and what [are] the audiences for
different levels of approach? What expectations do they have, and what
background knowledge do they bring? . . .
What of the opinion formers and their channels of influence? . . .the
guardians, the elite, the clerisy . . .? Where do they come from?
What about the organization for the production and distribution of the
written and spoken word? What are their natures, financial and otherwise? Is
it true, if so what does it mean practically (whatever it may mean in
imaginative terms) to say that the written word (and perhaps all the arts)
are progressively becoming commodities, to be used and quickly discarded? .
. .
Last, how little we know about all sorts of interrelations: about
interrelations between writers and their audiences, and about their shared
assumptions; about interrelations between writers and organs of opinion,
between writers, politics, power, class and cash; about interrelations
between the sophisticated and popular arts, interrelations which are both
functional and imaginative; and how few foreign comparisons we have made.
(Hoggart, 1970b, pp. 256-257)


Driftline Main Page


Display software: ArchTracker © Malgosia Askanas, 2000-2005