Human Communication in the British Cultural Studies Tradition

Human Communication in the British Cultural Studies Tradition
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  Human Communication in the British Cultural Studies Tradition  by Robert M. Seiler For about two decades, in many parts of the world, Cultural Studies (CS) has been moving into the mainstream of intellectual life, offering scholars interested in society and culture alternatives to old research paradigms (Hardt, 1989; Grossberg, 1997). BCS emerged from the work done at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), an interdisciplinary research centre Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall established at the University of Birmingham in 1964. Different scholars have endorsed different definitions of CS as a problematic (Hall, 1996, p. 31), but most claim that CS enables them to examine cultural objects and practices from the point of view of their interaction with and within relations of power. Hall (1984) writes that CS is both interpretive and evaluative in its methodologies, but rejects the simple equation of culture with "high" culture,[1] stressing that all forms of cultural  production need to be studied in relation to other cultural practices and to social and historical structures. In compiling this history, I take as my point of departure the account Norma Schulman (1993, p. 52) produced. Like Schulman, I will discuss the historical antecedents of this intellectual movement; explain what the founders and their successors meant by CS and how they defined its aims; consider what theoretical or  practical obstacles lay in the way of realizing its goals; and indicate the contributions Birmingham CS has made to the study of culture and communication. I end with a  brief sketch of the characteristics that distinguish this problematic. ANTECEDENTS It is possible to trace CS to S.T. Coleridge (1772-1834), the poet, critic, and  philosopher who wore the mantle of cultural critic for his generation. Coleridge met William Wordsworth in 1795, and the poets formed a deep friendship; they visited Germany during the year 1798-99 (Coleridge developed a taste for German  philosophy and criticism), and they collaborated on  Lyrical Ballads  (1789), a volume which signalled the start of the Romantic movement in English poetry. Coleridge wrote such inspired poems as "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan," and over the years he shared his interest in political philosophy in  Biographia  Literaria (1817), in which he introduces the philosophy of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling to English thinkers,  Aids to Reflection  (1825), a philosophical treatise on the distinctions between Understanding and Reason, and  Anima Poetae  (1895), a collection of observations on a variety of social and cultural topics. His Tory-  democratic attitude appealed to many and his defence of orthodoxy (always  philosophical) has influenced modern "neo-Christianity." It is more fruitful to trace CS to Matthew Arnold, T.S. Eliot, and F.R. Leavis, who in the twentieth-century saw the "great tradition" as a remedy for contemporary social  problems (they regarded culture and democracy as opposed). These critics offered readers examples of detailed, concrete analyses of cultural experiences. Matthew Arnold (1822-88), poet and critic, worked as inspector of schools from 1851-57, travelling across England and Europe, investigating Nonconformist schools, and Professor of Poetry at Oxford, 1857-86. Arnold outlined the function of the cultural critic in Culture and Anarchy  (1869), where he wrote that society is heading towards anarchy (he sees evidence of this threat in the contemporary philosophy of "doing as one likes"); only culture (he writes) can save it. He claims that, throughout history, two forces have governed society: (a) the impulse towards duty, self-control, and work, and (b) the impulse towards knowledge and ideas. Two races, the Hebrews and the Greeks, embody these impulses. By Hebraism, he means "firm obedience" and "strictness of conscience," and by Hellenism he means "clear intelligence" and "spontaneity of conscience." These impulses alternate throughout history, Christianity  being the triumph of Hebraism and the Renaissance being the triumph of Hellenism. Ideally these impulses can be balanced, and in fact Arnold writes that, as a critic, he will promote this very cause. In practice, however, the mission to "improve" the  populace meant promoting culture with a capital "C" (his opponents regarded culture as trivial). That is, he speaks of culture as the study of perfection, the impulse to make the world a better place, the drive to realize the ideal of human perfection and happiness. He argues that great literature (especially poetry) preserved these aspects of culture. From this perspective, "pursuing culture" becomes "improving society." During the 1930s and the 1940s, T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis were the major cultural influences in Great Britain: both were champions of elite culture. Interestingly, Eliot (1888-1965), the American-born British poet, critic, and dramatist, produced a great deal of provocative social criticism, promoting Arnold's elitist position on culture. For example, in  Modern Education and the Classics  (1934), he wrote that the Classics should be studied not for their own sake but as a buttress for the Faith, and in  Notes towards the Definition of Culture  (1939) he regarded culture as hierarchial and undemocratic. F.R. Leavis (1895-1978), the literary critic, taught at Cambridge, where he served as the Director of Studies in English at Downing College, Cambridge, 1932-78, and edited Scrutiny , the literary magazine, from 1932 to 1953, stressing the importance of inculcating critical standards. Like Arnold, Leavis believed that culture and  democracy were "unalterably" opposed; both regarded literature, i.e., great works, as a source of aesthetic and moral values which offered salvation from a perceived decline in the standards of contemporary life: the commodification of culture. In Culture and  Environment   (1933), Leavis produced a guide to culture for teachers and students, together with a list of exercises and essay topics. We can think of this book as a Media Studies textbook, with a focus on journalism, advertising, and popular fiction. This training is supposed to sharpen's the reader's powers of discrimination--so that he or she can "see things as they are." Later, in The Great Tradition  (1948), he produced a specific version of Arnold's cure for society's ills--culture. Leavis' two-part remedy includes great literature and a nostalgic, older/better way of life: pre-industrialized society. CATALYSTS A cultural revolution took place in Great Britain after the Second World War (Hall, 1989, p. 337). This revolution included the rapid expansion of mass consumption and mass society; the proliferation of means of mass communication; the collapse of Britain homogeneous population, thanks to the influx of people from Commonwealth countries (the Caribbean and South Asia); and the Americanization of British culture. This experience was linked to the country's loss of its identity as a super power, and the nation wrestled with the task of discovering a new cultural and national identity. A number of factors affected the development of BCS. First, governments at all levels in Britain extended educational opportunities after the Second World War, i.e.,  promoting adult education as a means of reconstruction. Second, mass produced American popular culture--pop music, Hollywood films, and television programs--displaced traditional popular culture. Third, the philosophy and social the criticism of such French thinkers as Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault offered British intellectuals new ways to frame the question of culture in new ways. Fourth, the New Left, which developed in Britain as a response to the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, revived the Marxist critique of capitalism. PIONEERS Deeply concerned about these developments, three working-class intellectuals, Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and E.P. Thompson, focused on the question of "culture" in their class-based society and wrote the texts which formed the basis of this intellectual movement. Richard Hoggart (b. 1918), taught literature in the adult education programme at the University of Hull, 1946-59; and later (after 1957) taught English at the University of Birmingham, where he founded the CCCS, serving as director from 1964-68. In The  Uses of Literacy  (1957), Hoggart "reads" working class culture for the values and the meanings that were embodied in its patterns and arrangements (Hall, 1996, p. 31); he describes the conditions and the culture of his youth--he grew up in Leeds during the 1920s and the 1930s, conveying (with great poignancy) working-class attitudes toward religion, politics, poverty, sex, and so on via the speech-patterns of the area: in the second half, he engages contemporary "mass" culture of the 1950s. Like Leavis, he perpetuates a dichotomy between the "good" culture of working-class (organic) communities of the past and the "bad" mass culture of the present, i.e., an alarming amount has been imported from the United States. Raymond Williams (1921-88) taught in adult education programs at Oxford, 1946-60, and from 1961 taught literary studies at Cambridge (he was Professor of Drama from 1974-83). In Culture and Society  (1958), he conceptualizes history as a process whereby cultural forms--the press, advertising, and the novel for example--shape and are shaped by the context of the time. In large part, he examines "key words," such as "democracy," "class," and "culture," noticing how the terms were used and how the terms changed, during three historical phases: (a) the nineteenth century, including J.S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, S.T. Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold; (b) the brief interregnum between the two centuries, including George Bernard Shaw; and (c) the modern period, including such figures as T.S. Eliot, F.R. Leavis, and George Orwell. Williams offers us a broad definition of "culture," one that includes "high" culture as well as "mass" culture, and suggests that we have to take a holistic approach to the study of culture. From this perspective, recovering the "structure of feeling" of a  period means going beyond the "major" literary texts and considering a range of forgotten texts, including letters, pamphlets, voting polls, and so on. By linking these texts with the political and the social history of the period, one can sketch the "social character" of the period. As well, he argues that we need a "common culture," one which values "diversity in community," enabling one to take pride in one's position  but also to respect the different abilities of others. In The Long Revolution  (1961), the follow-up book, he extends his thesis, providing more concrete proposals for a way out of the "stagnation" he sees ahead. E.P. Thompson (1924-93), the radical historian, wrote The Making of the English Working Class  (1963), a monumental work (it runs to about 900 pages), demonstrates the emergence of the British working-class--a topic ignored by historians of conventional history. He outlines the political and the cultural formation of the English working-class, approaching his topic from the perspectives of (a) the traditions of English radicalism in the late 18th century, e.g., religious dissent, popular dissent, and the influence of the French Revolution; (b) the social and the cultural experience of the Industrial Revolution as it was lived by different working groups, including weavers, field workers, cotton spinners, and so on; and (c) the growth of  working class consciousness as evidenced in the corresponding growth in a range of social, political, and cultural institutions. In short, Thompson argues that class is an historical phenomenon, i.e., we cannot understand it as a structure. To understand "class" (he writes) we must see it as a social and cultural formation arising from processes which can be studied only as they work themselves out over a long period of time. Culture must be understood in terms of the experiences of the winners and the losers in the struggles to fix meanings in society. FRENCH INFLUENCES A number of French intellectuals, including Roland Barthes, Claude Levi-Strauss, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Michel de Certeau, pioneered structuralist (and post-structuralist) methodologies for investigating culture. Ferdinand de Saussure, the Belgian linguist, claimed that language produced meanings by a system of relationships--by a network of similarities and differences. The principles that govern linguistic systems organize other types of communication systems, such as film and fashion. The way we dress, the way we eat, and the way we socialize: all communicate messages about ourselves--and they can be studied as signs. Saussure's followers developed semiotics, the study of signs. Analysts think of messages as systems of signs--they point out that texts have to be appreciated in context. THE NEW LEFT Stalin's suppression (1956) of a popular uprising in Hungary became a defining moment for Western European communists (Schulman, 1993, p. 58). The intellectuals who denounced the Stalinist version of Marxism--some were born in former British colonies, such as Stuart Hall--formed this movement; these colonial intellectuals introduced an external perspective on the conventional positions of the New Left. This  political movement was "new" in the sense that the "left" of the 1930s was old (it was guided by Marxist ideas and which supported Soviet policies) and that the New Left in the U.K. represented a radical socialist point of view, offering a critique of capitalism. The New Left was socialist in nature, anti-imperialist and anti-racist, supportive of the nationalization of major industries and the abolition of economic and education privilege. It also supported nuclear disarmament and promoted efforts to enrich the social and the cultural life of the working class. Two situations affected the struggle for socialism during the 1950s: affluence and the Cold War. Keynesian capitalism eliminated mass unemployment, enabling the working class to improve its standard of living (Schulman, pp. 58-59).
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