Cultural Studies, or Creating a Discipline through Anthologies and Syllabi

I’ve decided that starting this blog back up is probably a good idea for something that I am working on right now and will be working on for the foreseeable future: Cultural Studies. Back in January, I was looking for an independent study and talked with my advisor about doing something. What came out of that meeting was the decision that I would be putting together the syllabus for the upcoming (Fall 2013) methods course on Cultural Studies. These posts will first and foremost deal with my thoughts on the discipline and what it means to do cultural studies today as opposed to what cultural studies means in the history of the discipline (or whatever you want to call it, we’ll get into that later).

The second reason that I am getting this blog back together is that I really, REALLY want feedback on my thoughts by people who might end up taking the course or are just interested in cultural studies in general. I’m flying pretty blind through all of this to be honest. In addition to my general ignorance, I think there is an interesting opportunity here. I’ve had a few conversations within the department already, but this can be a singular space where all of us can come together to discuss what this course should look like for this department and for these grad students. I need your help if this thing is going to be worthwhile.

***Note: These are all pretty cursory thoughts. I’m hoping that eventually I will have put enough things into my eyes and brain that I will be able to actually talk about culture and cultural studies, but I don’t think I’ve reached that point yet.***

Why’s that? Well the main reason is that most of the current grad students in my department have already taken the Media Studies course in the Fall of 2012 with me. At times, especially if we look at anthologies, Cultural Studies and Media Studies run together without strong boundaries in place. You would think that since they are of different names that there are some differences, but I honestly cannot tell. How about we look at the definitions of Culture at hand to see if any boundaries or limitations come up.

Raymond Williams in 1958: “Culture is ordinary…To grow up in that country was to see the shape of a culture, and its modes of change. … Every human society has its own shape, its own purposes, its own meanings. Every human society expresses these, in institutions, and in arts and learning. The making of a society is the finding of common meanings and directions, and its growth is an active debate and amendment under the pressure of experience, contact, and discovery, writing themselves into the land.” (From The Routledge Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, 83, which does not attempt to first establish what the things in its title are, but instead is just a group of texts)

Kellner and Durham, 2001: “Societies, like species, need to reproduce to survive, and culture cultivates attitudes and behavior that predispose people to consent to established ways of thought and conduct, thus integrating individuals into a specific socio-economic system.”

“Culture in today’s societies thus constitutes a set of discourses, stories, images, spectacles, and varying cultural forms and practices that generate meaning, identities, and political effects. Culture includes artifacts such as newspapers, television programs, movies, and popular music, but also practices like shopping, watching sports events, going to a club, or hanging out in the local coffee shop. Culture is ordinary, a familiar part of everyday life, yet special cultural artifacts are extraordinary, helping people to see and understand things they’ve never quite perceived, like certain novels or films that change the world.” (ix, xiv in the Introduction to KeyWorks: Media and Cultural Studies)

Introduction to The Polity Reader in Cultural Theory, no author given, 1994: “Culture is usually defined in ‘cultural studies’ in a way that fits between these two extremes. ‘Culture’ may be said in this context to refer to concrete sets of signifying practices – modes of generating meaning – that create communication orders of one kind or another. Understood in this way, ‘cultural production’ plays an active, constitutive role in the creation of ways of life and overall forms of social organization. ‘Culture’ in the more lay sense mentioned above is understood as high culture, and counterposed to a diversity of popular cultural forms.” (2)

Graeme Turner’s Introduction to British Cultural Studies: An Introduction: “As Paul Willis (1979) has said, the ‘culture’ that is the subject of British cultural studies is ‘not artifice and manners, the preserve of Sunday best, rainy afternoons and concert halls. It is the very material of our daily lives, the bricks and mortar of our most commonplace understandings.” (2) …

“Culture is not monolithic, as in a sense is implied by the encoding/decoding models, but is made up of many competing, overlapping and conflicting groups. Each of these groups defines itself through its distinctive way of life, embodied in its institutions, its social relations, its beliefs and customs, and its ‘uses of objects and material life.'” (90)


So we have this importance of the everyday, a significance that I think might be a leftover from the importance of Williams’ “Culture is Ordinary” piece. Culture is that which has mass appeal and affects the people for which it is constitutive at large. But this is not the only sort of culture that cultural studies is about, correct? That’s why we have subculture as an important part of cultural studies, right?

So what does culture become other than just being some bullshit term that means little than ensuring that the discipline will be able to handle everything thrown its way?

An important question to probably ask is: Why are all of those sources from anthologies and cultural studies introduction texts?


While the first reason is pragmatic – I don’t know cultural studies, let’s start with these objects that at least purport to know it by title – the second reason is housed in the academic view of cultural studies. This field and the methods involved come out of an institutional approach to academia. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) – where I am placing the origin of cultural studies (thoughts on that?) – becomes this monolithic structure of texts and authors in cultural studies today.

From my basic knowledge, and an extensive amount of gathering anthologies and syllabi (WANT TO SEE MY AWESOME SPREADSHEETS GUYS?), it seems that the tradition of cultural studies is going to get in the way, at times, of actually progressing cultural studies beyond the CCCS’s writers and theories. Having to constantly look back in what seems to be an attempt to ensure that cultural studies has a definitive tradition that secures its place in academia, probably isn’t the greatest thing when we’re dealing with an evolving landscape of the discipline.

However, I’m not sure if we are actually saying anything when we call cultural studies a discipline. What the fuck is a discipline anyways? Since I have spent most of my academic life outside of definitive disciplinary boundaries, I HAVE NO CLUE. Media studies and cultural studies seem to just be lists of topics derived from huge, generic central terms – media and culture – that allow for the existence of study. Is there a difference between a discipline and a series of topics?

More to the point, is there a definition of culture that isn’t simply a list of topics? Do we get something more when these topics are all joined together under the heading of culture, or do we just have something to justify our existence?

That’s all I have. I think over the coming few weeks, I’m going to try to make my way through some of the more well-preserved topics of cultural studies in an attempt to put together an actual syllabus. After that, maybe some things will come through about the actual discipline as a whole or as what culture means as a whole. I don’t know. If you have suggestions, please leave comments. This is all so terrifying.

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