Tuesday, 6 March 2012

What is Cultural Studies? SERIES I: A General Overview

'Cosplayers' (from コスプレ kosupure 'costume role-play') - teenagers who dress as characters from film, television or animé cartoons - pose for the cameras in Harajuku, Tokyo. These girls are dressed as members of the Japanese band 'Dir en grey'. Photo © by Sonny Santos from http://en.citizendium.org/wiki/Culture_of_Japan
It is apparent that advertising, artefacts, entertainment, fads, fashion, films, graffiti, games, icons, Internet activities, literature, music, national symbols, posters, television, tourist destinations, values, and much more - the products and practices that make our everyday lives defines our culture. In many ways, culture is about us as cultural subjects i.e. the subjects of culture. In short, we are the subjects of culture because culture, apparently, is all about us. It is a natural corollary of our existence.

Interestingly, the word subject also evokes a sinister meaning: one that is placed under authority or control as a captive, dependent, incarcerated, retainer, servant, slave, and or vassal. The picture, suddenly, turns ominous with dark clouds of mass submission, consumerism, gratification, indulgence, and cultivation. However, we are aware that every element of our popular culture is not produced for us as an individual; our mass entertainment is a business – an entrepreneurial venture rather than a facility or a gift; most adults are aware of the catchphrases, headlines, jingles, logic, rhetoric, and slogans with which media tries to entice us. Yet, this knowledge fails us from partaking, producing, and consuming that culture. No matter how selective we are in our preferences or in exercising of our choices. In the end, we all participate, desire, consume, seek gratification, and at times influence or seek to influence and coerce others partake in same values and ways of life. “We are not necessarily taken in by culture, but we are taken with it. In a strange and complex way, then, we both are and are not the you that culture addresses” (Gedalof, Boulter, Faflak, & McFarlane, July 30 2004, p. 1).

Before we venture further, it may be pertinent to define culture and popular culture, and learn to differentiate the two that is if any such differences exist. Dictionaries in English language offer a wide range of definitions. The general impression that one gathers is that the term culture implies a dynamic force, which has causal and effect relationship with people and their lives. In social terms, culture is “a whole way of life, material, intellectual, and spiritual” (Williams, 1961, p. 18). This definition is said to have roots in Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold’s humanistic interpretation of culture as the “pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought or said in the world” (Culture and Anarchy, 1960, p. 6). Arnold passionately argues that the uneducated English masses could be molded into conscientious individuals who strive for human perfection through the harmonious cultivation of all of their skills and talents. Culture is “an ideal of human life, a standard of excellence and fullness for the development of our capacities, aesthetic, intellectual, and moral” (Collini, 2004).

Matthew Arnold saw culture, not only as pursuit of perfection, but also as means to arrest the negative impact of fast industrialization of society. According to him, the “machinery” (meaning the mindset) of the modern industrial world fostered obsession with material artifacts. These material icons of the modern industrial society are fast becoming the measure of society’s worth at the cost of its spiritual and intellectual development. Matthew saw culture as “sweetness and light” capable of restoring society’s true values and addressing the malice materialism. However, this seemingly egalitarian concept is hierarchical and elitist in its construct with a top-down approach where only people of taste, ethos, learning, and culture decide what the “best” for the rest is!

The Leavises soon after their marriage in 1929
This strong top-down approach, in matters of culture, of “a very small minority’’ capable of “the discerning appreciation of art and literature,” armed with “the finest human experience of the past,” guardians of the “subtlest and most perishable parts of tradition,” got strong support from literary critic F. R. Leavis. According to Leavis, it is upon this small minority “depend the implicit standards that order the finer living of an age, the sense that this is worth more than that, this rather than that is the direction in which to go, that the centre is here rather than there” (Mass Civilization and Minority Culture, 1930, pp. 1-2). In case of both Leavis and Arnold, culture assumes a static stature, a perishable tradition requiring careful nurturing, something that can only be cherished by preservation and protection. Arnold feels a strong and urgent need to protect culture from anarchy, whereas, Leavis advocated guarding culture against the onslaught of mass civilisation. The tendency to view culture in hierarchical and oppositional frame of references, according to Gedalof et al., “has led to reductive distinction between “high” culture and “low” culture”  (July 30 2004, p. 4).

"[T]hey involve surrender, under conditions of hypnotic receptivity, to the cheapest emotional appeals, appeals the more insidious because they are associated with a compellingly vivid illusion of actual life." F. R. Leavis on Hollywood films
F.R. Leavis and his wife Q.D. Leavis, made a life's work of studying the decline of 'culture' (Arnold's definition of it) in the new 20th century. They saw the middle class and the working class as a threat to ‘culture of the elite minority’ or the high culture. They saw machine produced goods, like radio programs, movies, pulp fiction, and popular music as monstrous ugly beasts designed to appeal to the uneducated tastes of the working class. 'Mass culture' was the term used mockingly, an ironic joke to mark the lamentation of like-minded Leavisites. They saw this mass culture as a hollow imitation of true culture. It taught nothing, it conveyed no worthwhile messages, and it had no value. Instead, mass culture worked as a type of drug, lulling its audience into a false perception of reality, deadening them to the true difficulties of life. Q. D. Leavis tirade against lowbrow culture (read as mass or popular culture) is exemplified in Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) when she claims that mass culture “does not merely fail to help” its readers, but “prevents him from normal development…, partly by providing him with a set of habits inimical to mental health” (p. 224).

The Leavis' critique continues even today, television and video games are often referred to as a 'drug', and as compensations for reality. While the Leavis' may have had a genuine concern that the public was reading mediocre material instead of Shakespeare, their appeals were also politically motivated. Their impression of history was that 'culture', that is, the likes of Shakespeare, Beethoven, and Michelangelo, had always been under the control of a minority, namely the aristocracy, who best knew how to mediate the culture to the majority, and more importantly, were in a position to quash culture that did not measure up to elite standards. In this role, the aristocracy properly educated the masses, redeeming society in general from cultural profanity. However, from the eighteenth century forward the power of the elite minority gradually began to diminish. The Leavises, a last bastion of the aristocracy, or at least aristocratic thinking, were pleading with British educators to heed their fears. Society's standard of living was deteriorating under the influence of hollow culture, whose growth could only be slowed by a counter-growth of true culture in the schools.

Today, not many critics subscribe to Highbrow and Lowbrow reductionist definitions of culture. Moreover, there is a school of thought, which reads these distinctions as power struggle or political negotiations. According to Herbert Gans (1974), such distinctions are “about which culture and whose culture should dominate in society… As such, the mass culture critique is an attack by one element of the society against another” (pp. 2-3). 
Further, blurring of boundaries between “high” culture and “low” culture, once distinct and rigid, have created a ‘no-man’s’ land where artist like Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton exist as exponents of the “high” culture. His painting, Campbell's Soup Cans also known as 32 Campbell's Soup Cans, hangs at Museum of Modern Art, Midtown Manhattan in New York City. Then there are objects whose status change over a period. Celluloid from the era of silent movies, “are treated as ‘art’ films today but were originally created for (and consumed by) a mass audience” (Harrington & Bielby, 2001, p. 7). This goes on to prove that ‘culture’ is a complex and constantly evolving fabric of everyday human interaction and experience at any given moment in time and space.