So this is a paper that I have pretty much just completed, but it is at best a rough draft that I am looking to refine and edit in the coming months for publication. I think there might actually be something to this, but, holy shit, it’s weird. I try to talk about the constant definition and re-definition of cultural studies in rhetorical terms in order to open up how cultural studies is being defined and what aims it might take in order to bring this process of definition to a larger amount of people.
I honestly don’t know if I have anything here or if I am saying anything new, exciting, or even anything that is better than bland. I really don’t know many things about cultural studies. I really don’t. I’ve been writing a bit about it and reading a bit, but there is so much out there that I have no idea if I am even talking to cultural studies per se. I don’t know what cultural studies is. I guess that’s why I took this approach to critiquing the discipline.
Who cares? Why care? I can’t really give you a reason.
It is a question that is the academic version of any James Bond mission; one that leads to no-win situations and requires a great deal of firepower or gadgetry to deal with. What is cultural studies? It is a difficult enough question to just ask, not to mention how horribly trying it is to answer. When we look for an answer to the question, we are confronted with many avenues to attempt to instantiate this definition. One can look to a particular time period or the history of cultural studies within a specific country in order to define the field. It could be said that it is just as valuable to the cultural studies scholar to look at the journals of cultural studies in order to put this definition together. There is no set heuristic for the definition of cultural studies, even though we are constantly barraged with the promise of the one, true definition in each book and journal issue.
Cultural studies has been constantly redefined since its beginnings with Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and the founding of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in the 1964 (Turner, 2003). The creation of cultural studies as a discipline has become less about actually creating a discipline that can persist throughout the decades and has instead moved towards individual instantiations which fit the rhetorical needs of the academic. A definition of cultural studies does not simply depend on what time period we look or if we prefer the British or Australian or American schools of cultural studies, but also requires one to look at the arena in which the cultural studies rhetor looks to produce a definition.
This paper will first offer several definitions of cultural studies given from a range of sources, from journals to contemporary books to major conferences that generally state their inclusion within cultural studies eponymously. The next section will look to create a rhetoric of the cultural studies definition in order to understand how the varied and multiple definitions are used. In my third section, I will look to provide some thoughts on the future of cultural studies and the possibilities for growth, while delineating requirements for the field to succeed going forward.
No one article or paper or book can fully save cultural studies, but it is a tradition that cultural studies scholars, and myself in this paper, continue to do. Be it Lawrence Grossberg’s Cultural Studies in the Future Tense, Henry Giroux’s Impure Acts: The Practical Politics of Cultural Studies, or any other discipline-defining attempt. While I realize the contradiction inherent within that statement and the aims of this paper, I would like to stress that this paper does not attempt to fully change the discipline of cultural studies nor does it look to offer new definitions of cultural studies. Instead, I am looking to show that cultural studies has been increasingly fragmented not necessarily by the texts, concepts, and theories that it has encountered and produced over its history, but by the rhetorical needs of the cultural studies discipline and the attempts to rectify these needs through a few general trends in definition.
Rhetoric and cultural studies have not crossed borders often, and there is a significant opening within these fields for a combinatory approach to the definition of cultural studies that works with rhetoric’s appeal to the pragmatic and cultural studies’ emphasis on multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. The closest thing that we have to a combination of rhetoric and cultural studies is from the cultural turn within rhetoric. Carolyn Miller’s “Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre” looks to take in the cultural turn and apply it to rhetoric’s view of genre (1994). Berlin’s writings (1992) on poststructuralism and composition is another article which mixes cultural studies and rhetoric, but there have been little attempts by cultural studies’ meta-critics to bring rhetorical theories into their definitions of cultural studies. This paper aims to fill this hole in the literature by providing a different look at the practices and concepts involved in the definition of cultural studies.
Section I: The Rhetorical Situation of Cultural Studies
As I am posing the question to what is the rhetoric of the definition of cultural studies, it is first important to understand the situation in which cultural studies finds itself in the early 2010’s. The idea of a rhetorical situation was first emphasized by Lloyd Bitzer in an article published shortly after the establishment of the CCCS. In this article, Bitzer aims to understand the ways in which a rhetorical text comes into existence as a response to material, concrete discourses in order to alter or progress that discourse. Bitzer’s simplest definition is seen through his aims, writing, “I want to know the nature of those contexts in which speakers or writers create rhetorical discourse” (1). While the original article has come under a great deal of critique (Vats, 1973; Consigny, 1974; Biesecker, 1989), it is still important to understand the situations that call pieces of rhetoric into existence, giving them credence, legitimacy, and boundaries in which they are required to work.
The rhetorical situation of cultural studies is one which has called for a constant defining, or re-defining, of the discipline. The situation of cultural studies’ origin within the CCCS was simple enough, with early cultural studies scholars like E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, and Richard Hoggart aiming to fight against early understandings of culture that began in the nineteenth century and transformed through the end of that century and the beginning of the twentieth. Williams’ definitions of culture are helpful here, particularly his understanding of culture as “ordinary.” This type of rhetoric was called forth through the works of Matthew Arnold and his polarizing book Culture and Anarchy, where the two forces are diametrically opposed. This view of culture could not hold in the new century, according to the early founders of the CCCS. Graeme Turner writes in his overview of the history of British Cultural Studies that Arnold’s thoughts could not continue, writing, “Where class divisions had once been sufficiently rigid to confine political and economic power to one class, industrialization and the growth of the middle class and an urban working class had blurred these divisions” (34). The rhetorical situation of early cultural studies, and the response of culture as ordinary, is most likely the most simple of the rhetorical situations that cultural studies has engaged with.
If we fast-forward to today we are confronted with a different situation entirely. The first item that one is required to describe in the rhetorical situation is the “cultural turn” in the academy, best defined as the injection of culture into disciplines other than cultural studies brought along by Postmodernists and Poststructuralists alike. Cultural theory now had to be taken seriously in disciplines from history to sociology and everywhere in between. Bonnell and Hunt describe the origins of the cultural turn by writing,
Frustrated with the limitations of social history and historical sociology-frustrated, that is, by the constraints of a commonsensical, usually materialist notion of the social-social historians and historical sociologists began to turn in a cultural direction and to look at the cultural contexts in which people (either groups or individuals) acted. More and more often, they devised research topics that fore grounded symbols, rituals, discourse, and cultural practices rather than social structure or social class. (8)
While this accounts for the rise of cultural studies as an oft-referenced discipline, the cultural turn was also deadly for cultural studies, as it displaced the field’s power as being the sole producer of cultural knowledge.
With the cultural turn, cultural studies is now called upon to define itself, not in terms of what culture is considered to be, but with a vastly different tone that looks instead towards legitimacy. If many other branches of the humanities and social sciences are taking on the concepts, topics, and methods of cultural studies, why should it exist as an entity unique to itself? With this sort of situation, cultural studies is required to define itself with a greater emphasis on negative terms instead of positive terms, focusing on the differences between it and the disciplines which co-opted its terms and concepts.
While I have attempted to give a generic rhetorical situation for the defining of cultural studies, the situation, like the field itself, must be understood to have splintered long ago. There is not a unifying or unified situation that cultural studies is responding to, just as there is no unified definition of cultural studies. There have been responses to the situation brought on by the cultural turn. Responses that have attempted to look at the legitimacy of the discipline. This is a view that has played out its role in the play that is cultural studies. While I will return to possible aims of cultural studies later in this paper, it is important for cultural studies to realize its fragmented nature in a radically new way. Instead of viewing this fragmentation as inherent to the discipline, there is a requirement for cultural studies to view itself as constantly referring to a fragmented and evolving rhetorical situation.
Section I: The Tropes of Cultural Studies
While instantiation is the most appropriate term for the definition of cultural studies, as it is brought into existence by rhetors for singular rhetorical situations, there are nonetheless tropes of this definition. The defining of cultural studies can almost be seen as a genre in and of itself, employing its own tropes and traditions in order to maintain consistency while expanding and contracting to suit the rhetorical situation’s individual needs. These tropes often interact and influence each other, maintaining some consistency across rhetorical situations, but it is important to understand that these tropes are often used in singular definitions that are specific to their time and place within cultural studies.
To get a feeling of how cultural studies is defined, I was required to look at many different mediums of legitimacy. While there have been many books written on the subject of what cultural studies is, this paper also aims to include the missions of several academic journals and professional organizations in the attempt to give a richer and more inclusive definition of the field.
A. The Role of Power in Cultural Studies
According to its definitions, cultural studies would not exist without an understanding of power, one of the most basic concepts that has pervaded the discipline since its beginnings. While any cultural studies scholar would be remiss to include power in their definition, the idea of power is often brought into the definition as an aim of cultural studies, not necessarily part of its internal identity. Turner writes, “The point of doing this is not only academic – that is, as an attempt to understand a process or practice – it is also political, to examine the power relations that constitute this form of everyday life and thus to reveal the configurations of interests its construction serves” (5). It is through power that cultural studies is inundated with its political nature, brought forth through the consistent call to examine structures of power for political means.
This is more basic in a part of the definition that Simon During offers in his introduction to The Cultural Studies Reader (2nd Edition), where he writes,
The second distinguishing characteristic of early cultural studies was that it was an engaged form of analysis. Early cultural studies did not flinch from the fact that societies are structured unequally, that individuals are not all born with the same access to education, money, health care, etc., and it worked in the interests of those who have least resources. (2)
While During states that this is a factor of early cultural studies, it has continued through to today. Grossberg writes, “[cultural studies] is concerned with describing and intervening in the ways cultural practices are produced within, inserted into, and operate in the everyday life of human beings and social formations, so as to reproduce, struggle against, and perhaps transform the existing structures of power” (ch. 1). This sentiment is even reproduced in the “Aims & scope” section of Cultural Studies journal, with its “aims to intervene in the processes by which the existing techniques, institutions and structures of power are reproduced, resisted and transformed” (Cultural Studies). Through the use of power as a defining feature of cultural studies, once can also see that the political, along with some sort of conceptualization of the everyday life, are also brought into play.
The issue that cultural studies begins to have with power is its definition, which is lacking in most of the current definitions of cultural studies. There is no separation between the ideas of power in Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, Althusser’s “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation),” or de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, even though these pieces have played considerable roles in the development of cultural studies. For the rhetorician of cultural studies today, the true question becomes, “What idea of power is being addressed?” instead of “How is power being confronted in culture?” Pickering writes that, “the key emphasis on power remains distinctive to cultural studies,” but if we are to accept this in the future, it is incredibly important to first understand which conceptualization of culture is being addressed and how that plays into our understanding of the particular cultural studies.
B. Materiality and the Concrete
Cultural studies’ claim to legitimacy has often come down to its practice of using material situations to describe, analyze, and investigate culture. While power is used as the rhetorical ends, materiality is the closest idea that cultural studies has to a consistent method. This method revolves around the existence of material objects that can be analyzed and studied, often with the aims of discussing power. Johnson et al. write, “the effects of power are observable – and they are material; to our own positioning within these structures,” in their explication of the material effects of structures of power (91). While cultural studies often clings on to a theory of anti-methodology, it must be understood that this appeal to the material has important effects on what we can call cultural studies in the future.
While this idea of the material is central to the possible methods of cultural studies, there is a privileging of the material as an ideal at times when defining the field. Grossberg demonstrates this, writing, “cultural studies believes that there are material (nondiscursive) realities that have real, measurable effects. … Cultural studies does not treat the world as if it were all and only culture; it does not deny the material existence of the world apart from the ways human beings make sense of and communicate about it” (ch. 1). This line of thinking allows for constant reinterpretations of the material objects and concepts brought under analysis by cultural studies, allowing cultural studies to thrive in an arena of interpretation and, more importantly, re-interpretation.
While this concept has been discussed in numerous definitions of cultural studies, I would like to caution the use of this trope in future instantiations of the definition. The emphasis upon the material can, at times, lead cultural studies to completely converge with media studies. While there has not been extensive attention given to the differences and similarities of these fields, I would suggest that cultural studies tends to move towards the human uses of media, while media studies aims to describe how media artifacts influence human behavior. The emphasis of the material existence of structures of power can lead the cultural studies researcher to look more at the media involved in cultural processes than the human interactions with those media.
In addition to the convergence of media and cultural studies, the issue of taking the material as concrete is important for cultural studies to realize. Teresa Ebert writes, “Not only is language treated as an untranscendable materiality in contemporary critique, but also the body is considered to be a concrete opacity whose singular materiality cannot be mastered by giving it a confining identity such as gender” (3). While cultural studies will continue to privilege the material, mainly for its heuristic advantages for the analysis of culture, this is an important warning for the future of cultural studies. Grossberg counters this with an emphasis on “radical contextuality,” which allows for constant reinterpretation, but not necessarily re-concretization of cultural objects, which is required moving forward for cultural studies to continue to view the human within culture as evolving (ch. 1).
C. Interdisciplinarity and Multidisciplinarity
A point that many scholars will look to in describing the strengths of cultural studies is its ability to move throughout and between disciplines in the analysis of culture. If we look to the mission statement of the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) this is apparent. Here it is written that their,
[P]urpose … shall be to encourage and assist in the study of popular and American culture in all of its various forms and expressions by bringing together the various intellectual disciplines, academic and non-academic areas, that may deal with the subject, by fostering interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research endeavors, and by encouraging interested persons to study and conduct research on Popular and American Culture and to belong to the association. (PCA/ACA, “History and Overview”)
Placing these two concepts next to each other seems almost contradictory, with the field operating between disciplines while also incorporating multiple disciplines.
The prominence of this trope within the definition of cultural studies melds well with the emphasis that Grossberg places on the material existence of reality, as it allows for an ever-expanding field. Cultural studies’ response to the question of “What is cultural studies?” in recent years has moved away from nailing the discipline down to a manageable size and has instead moved toward this expansive definition. If cultural studies can exist between and within multiple disciplines at once, it is suddenly not required to adhere to the methods of a singular discipline. It can pull from anthropology, sociology, economics, and a host of others, all at the same time. While this approach to cultural studies can be useful in the discovery of different methodological combinations, it is not helpful in the creation of a definition.
It is for these signifiers that the distinction of rhetorical trope is most applicable, as they are often called upon due to their ability to expand cultural studies into other fields. During writes, “Pragmatically, thinking of cultural studies as a field within Multidisciplinarity increases its reach inside institutions committed, however problematically, to objectivity – institutions, which are coming under mounting pressure to close down on cultural dissidence from community and media interests” (27). We see here the necessity and utility of this trope within the coming rhetorical situations that will present themselves to cultural studies. While there are plenty of issues with the way that multidisciplinarity is used within cultural studies, it is one of the few tropes and defining aspects of the field which readily respond to a particular rhetorical situation. With the rising costs within the academy, and the turn of many institutions to delete or condense culturally-focused programs, it is these sorts of tropes, those that are deployed for rhetorical gain in specific situations, that are incredibly important for cultural studies to continue within the academy.
Section II: The Next Cultural Studies Definition
A. The Shirky Principle and the Rhetorical Situation of Cultural Studies
In 2010, Kevin Kelly discussed on his blog “The Shirky Principle,” based on the idea of Clay Shirky’s that many institutions will forward the problems that they can solve. He writes, “The Shirky Principle declares that complex solutions (like a company, or an industry) can become so dedicated to the problem they are the solution to, that often they inadvertently perpetuate the problem” (The Technium). This principle does seem to be fully applicable to the definition of cultural studies, but I think we are dealing with something a bit more complicated. The first question to ask in relation to the Shirky Principle is whether or not we can accept cultural studies as an institution. It would be much easier to look at the CCCS as the institutionalization of cultural studies and how its publications adhere or do not adhere to the Skirky Principle, but, unfortunately, the Centre was closed under Thatcher, and there is not a unified voice of cultural studies in its current landscape.
For cultural studies scholars to even broach the Shirky Principle within the discipline it is required to first understand that there is no unified rhetorical situation, no unifying problem, that cultural studies is responding to. Since the transition from “culture” meaning high culture to “culture” as ordinary and everyday, there is no longer a clear exigency for cultural studies to define itself. Cultural studies, like many disciplines, is required to define itself largely in response to academic forces like journal and book publishers, professional organizations like PCA/ACA, or university and college administrators. It is not as if the exigencies do not exist, but cultural studies must face the fact that it defines itself in terms of these institutions, instead of the idea that the discipline is responding to the same or similar issues that brought about cultural studies in the 1960’s. Instead, cultural studies is required to reinvent itself constantly.
B. Invention and Reinvention
The idea that cultural studies is constantly reinventing itself is not a new concept. In fact, it is often stated in the articles and books of cultural studies scholars who aim to reorient the discipline in one way or another. In their introduction to Cultural Studies in Question, Marjorie Ferguson and Peter Golding write:
It is a curiosity of cultural and media analysis that cultural studies is not infrequently caught in the act of reinventing itself. There is a certain critical groundswell that suggests this process may again be under way. The spectacle of epistemological tails being swallowed and methodological skins being shed, while a matter of interest to others, appears to be neither novel nor noteworthy for an ‘intellectual project’ that extols the virtues of eclecticism, relativism, and the moving target as research agenda. (xiii)
I would like to first point out that this statement was written in 1997, long before Grossberg’s influential Cultural Studies in the Future Tense, and before many other definitions of cultural studies were put forth, demonstrating a tend to define and re-define across just a few decades. Secondly, while I agree that there often seems to be a new cultural studies orientation being put forth in the latest journal or book, we must understand that cultural studies as a practice is not one which seeks to put forward a definition of cultural studies. Instead, the definition of the field is left to meta-critics, with little implication given for the cultural studies practitioner.
What is required in our understanding of the rhetoric of the cultural studies definition is an orientation toward constant redefinition in contrast to the groundbreaking book or article that comes around once every few years. There should not only be large pieces that define cultural studies, but a look to a constant instantiation of the definition. Just as one might ask, “What is rhetoric for this author?” we must ask what the definition of cultural studies being put forth is for every piece of writing that is put forth in this discipline. With this one can understand the influences being placed upon the author as well as what that author is doing for the rest of the discipline.
Conclusions: Creating Cultural Studies Definitions in the Future
Cultural studies, like all disciplines within the humanities, is rhetorical. It has specific aims that tend to specific aims. However, the meta-critics of cultural studies have viewed the discipline as being holistic in nature all while emphasizing a dispersed and multidisciplinary method. This is a view that must end in the constant redefinition and reorientation of cultural studies. Instead, cultural studies must put its tropes of interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity to work for rhetorical gain, ensuring that the definitions of cultural studies move to view the creation of its definition in a multi-situational way.
The Future Definition of Cultural Studies
The aims of this paper are not to provide a working definition of cultural studies or culture, but to provide a few key ways in which the many future definitions of cultural studies can rhetorically succeed. My aim in pushing the rhetorical strategies of cultural studies is to provide a greater understanding of the situations that called definitions into existence and the effects that these definitions have on the discipline. Without this push, cultural studies risks an unending conversation with itself, constantly referring back to the history of the discipline instead of aiming at the implications of new technologies or new situations brought to the fore from various disciplines.
The first key piece of future definitions requires cultural studies scholars to look for rhetorical situations that they can readily respond to, while understanding that each instance of defining cultural studies will have slightly different rhetorical situations. These multiple and varied rhetorical situations should then fully influence the creation of future definitions.
Secondly, cultural studies can no longer be satisfied with only meta-critics influencing the orientation of the discipline. Instead, each piece of cultural studies writing must look to influence the definition of the field, explicitly. This will allow for the field to have a more sustained conversation about the definition of the field and, more importantly, will allow for the practice of cultural studies to influence its definition, something that is sorely lacking with current definitions. In my reading, Kellner and Durham’s introduction to Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks comes close, where they write,
Indeed, a future-oriented cultural and media studies should look closely at the development of the entertainment and information technology industries, the mergers and synergies taking place, the syntheses of computer and media culture that are being planned and already implemented, and emergent wireless technologies. (xxxviii)
However, this only provides a future aim and does not readily state the influences of these technologies on the definition. Cultural studies needs to turn inwards slightly. Instead of relating everything to this amorphous and barely-defined idea of “culture,” it can make its own future through a constant application of the results of cultural studies practice to the definition of the discipline.
Lastly, it is important for cultural studies to define the terms that make up its definitions. I have talked about the trope of power prior to this, but I would like to bring up again the offshoots of this concept, everyday life and the political. These concepts are obviously of great importance to cultural studies and have consistently been a part of the discipline’s definition since its heyday in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It is not enough to discuss cultural studies solely through mentioning these concepts, as they too have had long histories. In the future definitions of cultural studies, these concepts need to be explicitly stated for a better understanding of the rhetorical situation that they are responding to. Michel de Certeau’s concept of everyday life in The Practice of Everyday Life is quite different from that of Henri Lefebvre’s in “Notes on a New Town.” Without a further definition of these, seemingly, central concepts, cultural studies will not be able to be defined in a specific and useful way.
The Past and Future of Cultural Studies’ Definitions
Laid before the reader is an attempt to put cultural studies on the offensive and give it the rhetorical tools it sorely needs to compete with other disciplines within the humanities. While it does not adequately define cultural studies, it does provide for a more holistic and dynamic definition that is required for a possible return to the times when it was viewed as a valuable member of the academy.
While I would generally suggest an attempt to return to the rhetorical strategies of early cultural studies (defining culture constantly, responding to specific cultural exigencies, etc.), I hesitate due to the various changes that have occurred within the field and the academy at large. Culture is no longer an object which is easily applied to one social class and the many disciplines of the academy no longer avoid culture as an important avenue of study.
I have largely avoided discussing the exigency that brought this paper into existence, which is the creation of a syllabus for a graduate cultural studies methods course. While this project led me to question the field of cultural studies, I have found that this is an arena which requires these rhetorical strategies to be employed. The graduate cultural studies course cannot be satisfied with simple acceptance of the historical definitions of cultural studies, but must put a pedagogical emphasis on contesting, adapting, and creating new definitions in order to further the field. In addition to this, professors must constantly challenge their students to attempt to define cultural studies in their own work for the course.
Looking solely at the multitude of books and journal articles on the subject of defining cultural studies, we can no longer assume a normative definition of cultural studies, nonetheless a static definition of culture and its network of terms. Instead of assuming the definitions that have been handed down, cultural studies, especially with the rise of media studies and science and technology studies, finds itself confronted with an ultimatum: constantly define yourself and adapt, or fall by the wayside. Taking on the ability to constantly redefine and reorient itself, cultural studies will be able to fill in the gaps of left by current disciplines, fulfilling its historic call for interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, and transdisciplinarity.
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 The distinction between “field” and “discipline” may be of importance to cultural studies in its efforts to define itself, but this is an area that I have not engaged with due to my own lack of understanding. These terms will be used interchangeably. For further discussion, see Nordenstreng, 2007.
 I shy away from discussing “everyday life” within this essay, not because its importance is absent from cultural studies, but because of my inability to understand how it is to be used by the cultural studies practitioner. De Certeau’s understanding of bricolage and “making do” have been incredibly important concepts for cultural studies, but the uses of these tend to lead back into discussions of power, instead of bringing us different conceptualizations of the everyday. It is odd to me that de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City” is included in many cultural studies anthologies, but the Situationist theory of dérive is not often included in the pantheon of cultural studies concepts.
 I would like to add that while this is a useful example of materiality within cultural studies, Grossberg does not offer a definition of culture or materiality, complicating its usefulness outside of the rhetoric of cultural studies.