Cultural Studies in less than 1000 Words

While coffee is not going to be defined in general—this is a leap of faith I possess that if you don’t know what coffee is, I’m not going to explain it to you beyond offering you a taste—however, since its meaning is far less commonly known, cultural studies will be.

Without citing a definitive text for an “academic” answer, when asked, I speak of  cultural studies as the examination of not only a text in and of itself, but also the context and surroundings of that text: when/where/how it was composed, published, and read, and how people related to it, themselves, and each other. A text is not just a written work like essays, novels, and poems, but also film, painting, photography, music, ads, buildings, landscapes, t-shirts, bumperstickers … everything is text. Texts are, as I read them to be, are cultural documents of people and their collectives: society, religion, politics, etc. Examples that attracted me to this field are the Barthes mythological reading about the Algerian boy on the cover of Paris-Match and and the idea of Althusserian Repressive State Apparatuses. Many people grow skeptical about SAs regardless of ever thinking about schools, churches, media as being such. When I was in high school (long before I knew of Althusser and his ideas), a circle of people I knew placed great cultural capital in the punk song, “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies; without being aware of the theory behind it, they were reacting to the manipulations of their immediate RSAs. There is a YouTube video where Slavoj ŽiŽek’s “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce” is demonstrated in dry erase art, and is a wonderfully palatable yet densely rich text demonstrating cultural studies and global capitalism through the purchase of a cup of coffee.

Cultural studies is, for me, an awl to untangle knots of meaning throughout the threads of our narratives and experiences, our histories and myths. To read a situation such as exampled above is be aware of how culture is formed. And to be able to read it is to also compose it. What is it to negotiate your own life if you are not going to at least attempt to compose it yourself rather than have it merely be composed for you by others? Why merely perpetuate something when you have opportunity to mold it into something that is—hopefully—more coherent, empathic, and compassionate than it might otherwise be? One glance into the history of advertising and its implications leads at some point to Edward Bernays and the deliberate manipulation of thought and desire through Freudian suggestion (the good doctor was Edward’s uncle, of course). Popular media alone is enough to shape and influence our lives, let alone the (literally) mind-numbing amount of information contrived to entice thought and desire in a particular direction. In being subjected to that flux in the world around us, I want to do my best to reason with, and understand, my negotiation through it. And, in implementing a change upon the culture, ensure that it does not merely perpetuate a progress trap.

Specifically, I have been terribly, wonderfully, influenced by music and film (particularly the chronotope of 1991-92). And, on what could rightfully be called a spiritual level, I have been irrevocably drawn into the study of genocide in Yugoslavia which occurred following those same years. It is this combination of cinema, music, and genocidic clash of culture wherein lies the most striking, the most pressing issue about cultural studies for me, which is this: what happens when ideology becomes so culturally warped that complete fabrications of history—of even recent and immediate events—are refurbished for prevaricative means? when the most heinous of human behavior is rationalized as being societally acceptable? when a hierarchy in society deems a particular section of that society are being undesirable and should be cleansed? Something that, without subscribing to conspiracy nor political slant, is evident and slowly progresses throughout our own modern, civilized, first world culture.

This compels the question of what to do with this study of meaning in a culture and its texts? If we sit in classrooms discussing texts in an art-for-art’s-sake manner, we are merely Twittering while Rome burns, and ignore the plunder as Goth kids sack the seven hills. We are, by accident of birth, immediately better off than some 65% of the rest of the world, so when reading such texts for meaning, should we not also morally reflect upon them? Subalterns, Spivak says, cannot speak (“subalterns” being, by definition, subordinate to the Repressive State Apparatuses that dominate and control lives of billions of individuals), but Spivak also notes, by doing our homework, we can speak about them. And if we don’t, who will?

Cultural studies is that homework.




12 Sep. 2012

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