Aphorisms on Cultural Studies

Institutionally speaking, cultural studies is a field of academic inquiry that developed in Great Britain in the 1960s-80s and has been taken up and transformed by various academic movements in various ways since the 1980s. Cultural studies is explicitly interdisciplinary, employing the methods of both the humanities and the social sciences, and drawing upon materials and theories from disciplines such as literary studies, sociology, psychology, history, economics, and politics.

Conceptually speaking, cultural studies originates in the idea of textuality - that is, in the idea that our world is full of texts, or things that we humans have created, and that we can interpret those “cultural texts” in the same way that we interpret “ literary texts” more traditionally understood. If a literary text is the product of an individual author, a cultural text is the product of an entire society, or at least a sub-culture within a society.

The definition of a text in cultural studies is significantly broader than the definition of a text in traditional literary studies. In cultural studies, a text is not simply a book. In fact, in cultural studies, a text need not be a material document at all. The text can be a literary document (a novel or poem), or some other artistic document (a film or photograph), or what is called a “cultural artifact” (a hairstyle or political slogan), or an event (a campus riot or )

In other words, cultural studies does history as literary studies.

From the perspective of cultural studies, for example, there are genres of culture: a culture could be tragic or comic based on its congruence with the literary genres of tragedy and comedy. Moreover, cultures have their own rhetorics: a culture could rely upon the logic of a metaphor, or it could invoke the pastoral mode.

In contrast to history, which addresses the particular facts of a society – who did what when – cultural studies attends to the conceptual implications of a society. Why did a certain culture emerge out of a certain society? How does a certain culture work? What’s the logic at play in a certain society? Where did a certain cultural formation come from? How does a culture perpetuate itself? How does cultural change occur?

Cultural studies attends to the social and political context in which a culture develops and manifests.

Cultural studies attends to the assumptions, motives, commitments, and structures of social life. It asks why we do the things we do - “we” as particular individuals living in societies, and “we” as cultures and sub-cultures developed by societies.

Popular culture has become a central concern of cultural studies. In other words, while much history attends to the “high culture” of the ruling class and elites in a society, many cultural studies shift their focus to the “low culture” of the general public.

As such, it is often necessary, when doing a cultural studies project, to determine whether the culture you’re looking at is a mainstream culture (sometimes called a dominant culture) or a subculture.

How do you do cultural studies? Inevitably, there are various ways. The way I like doing cultural studies is to treat a culture like a text, and to treat the society like the author of the text. And then I ask, “What was the author’s intent?” In other words, what was the society trying to accomplish? Why was it trying to accomplish this? And what steps did it take in order to accomplish this? 

Perhaps the basic unit of cultural studies is the reception study. Reception studies is a variant of reader-response literary theory, which attends to the reader’s subjective and situated response to a literary text. Reader-response theory contends that the circumstances of a reader condition and influence meaning, perhaps even more so than the intent of the author. Receptions studies extends this idea to say, “If meaning is conditioned by the situation of a reader, then how a particular cultural moment shape the interpretation hazarded by a particular reader or set of readers?”

As with many disciplines and movements, there is a broad distinction to make between cultural studies that are ethical and cultural studies that are analytical. When ethical, cultural studies seek to expose the injustices of a certain cultural formation. This kind of cultural studies was popular in Britain in the 1960s-80s and was sometimes called “cultural materialism.” When analytical, cultural studies seek to identify and describe the structure and logic of a certain culture without trying to change it or even rendering a judgment of it.