In short, cultural studies is about language, power and the people. Cultural studies is a field involving multiple disciplines concerning diverse subjects. By examining social institutions, scholars of cultural studies are trying to capture the distinct movements, values and habits of people living together within a society.
Cultural studies is mainly concerned with eight key concepts namely: signifying practices, representation, materialism and non-reductionism, articulation, power, popular culture, texts and readers, subjectivity and identity. Writers are constantly in debate about how to deploy theses key concepts and which is the most significant one. The theories from which the concepts are drawn from will be discussed after briefly introducing each of the concepts.
Culture and signifying practices are focusing on the production of meaning in order to make sense of the world. Here the importance of language becomes apparent as language is a way to produce signs and hence, meaning.
Representation refers to the construction of meanings through several means such as images or sounds. However, meanings are connected to specific social contexts and are therefore understood differently according to distinct circumstances.
Materialism and non-reductionism are two interrelated concepts in cultural studies. Materialism is tied to the production of cultural meanings. At this point several questions arise such as who controls the production, how is it distributed and how does that affect the cultural environment. Hence, as already mentioned before, cultural meanings are related to a specific context with its own particularities. Such meanings cannot be reduced what is described as non-reductionism.
Articulation describes the relation of several elements in cultural studies. Hence, certain subjects are constructed through other subjects which are context dependent.
Power stands central in cultural studies as it highly influences, generates and determines social relationships.
Popular culture includes the concept of power generated through ideology and consent which results in hegemony. Ideology invisibly maintains power by presenting certain norms and values as universal truths. If a large group of people consents to a certain structure in society, hegemony is created which reproduces certain meanings and practices as forms of power over the subordinated group.
Texts and readers are culturally constructed such as sounds, images or practices and can generate power through produced ideology and hegemony. Hence, as people consume such cultural texts, they create meanings which again depends on the environment and context the people are currently in.
Subjectivity is related to identity as subjectivity refers to the person itself, whereas identity refers to how it feels to be such a person. Hence, we humans are not essential, existing subjects but are influenced by our surroundings and are constructed through it. This argument is also described as anti-essentialism.
According to German philosopher, economist and socialist Marx social formations are based on the division of the production mode which is strongly related to power and conflict. The mode of production however changed over time from an ancient mode in the beginning to a feudal mode in the Middle Ages and a capitalist mode today. In the mid nineteenth century during the rise of industrialism, Marx analysed the theory of increasing capitalism and came to the conclusion that the means of production such as machines, factories and corporations are increasingly privately owned by the upper class, also known as bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the proletariat (working class) does not own property but rather needs to sell its labour to the bourgeoisie in order to survive. Hence, Marx argues that the bourgeoisie exploits the proletariat and turns the labour of the proletariat to its property from which it extracts value for production.
Here, it becomes apparent that capitalism according to the Marxist theory leads to class divisions. By the commodification of goods, which is the process by which goods or skills are turned into consumable objects, capitalism becomes a profit-driven system.
Critics of Marxism indicate that Marx does not take human agency into account but rather regards history as independent from human action. Cultural studies contested the economic determinism demonstrated by Marxism and emphasizes the importance of culture.
Culturalism as a philosophical concept was firstly introduced in the early twentieth century by Polish philosopher Znaniecki and is often referred to as new humanism. Culturalism relates to the creative production of cultural meanings by humans in a historical context. Hence, people are not passive but have agency with which they actively produce meanings. They interpret cultural texts in order to understand the meaning.
On the contrary, structuralism which developed in Europe in the early 1900s, indicates that meanings are created within fixed structures and independently from any given person. Hence, human actions are regarded as a product of the societal structures and hence as passive objects rather than active subjects. Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1875-1913) criticised the anti-humanist concept of structuralism by arguing that meaning can only be generated through reference which is the relation between signs. He states that language can be considered as a sign system consisting of signifiers which are the medium and the significations which ascribe meanings. Hence, culture can be compared to the structure of a language as it can be explained and read through signs.
The concept of poststructuralism was introduced in the mid twentieth century by French and continental philosophers and critical theorists. The theory indicates the dynamic of meanings which are continuously in process. Meanings are therefore a result of the combination of diverse texts which is also known as ‘intertextuality’.
French philosopher Derrida focused on the deconstruction of language and hence, its structure in the 1960s.. He argues unlike Saussure that meanings of signs are not fixed but signs can rather be interpreted in different ways and generate multiple meanings. Therefore, Derrida suggests the notion of différance which indicates that meanings can continuously be supplemented and change. In this manner, Derrida deconstructs fixed binary oppositions such as nature vs. culture or speech vs. writing. The world is full of texts and signs their meanings depends on how they are represented and put in practice.
Similarly, French postmodernist philosopher Foucault criticizes the structuralist view of language as an autonomous system. He rather focuses on the consequences of discourses which are influenced and determined by material and historical conditions. He argues that language produces knowledge which ascribes meaning to material objects and social practices. Moreover, he argues that ruling discourses in society generate power which is apparent in all social formations. Hence, individuals are the product of historical embedded discourses nobody can resist.
Poststructuralism contributed the most to cultural studies with the notion of anti-essentialism. Hence, poststructuralism implies that no such things as fixed universal truth exists. There are rather multiple truths which are flexible. Truths are elements of language with which people ascribe meanings dependent on their social convention in order to create their own truths. Similar to poststructuralism, postmodernism is an anti-essentialist concept too as it rejects the idea of a universal truth and suggests that binary distinctions become increasingly blurred and hence, more and more plural and diverse meanings are created.
Central to psychoanalysis stands the formation of subjectivity. Austrian psychoanalyst Freud elaborated on this concept by dividing the self into three different elements:
The ego as rational mind.
The superego as social moral sense.
The unconscious with a distinct logic than rationality.
Freud argues that the fragmented self evolves out of social interactions throughout life and unifies over time. In order to demonstrate this process he introduced the ‘Oedipus complex’ ‘which is the formation of the gendered subjectivity. The psychic processes through which humans form their gender, are influenced by the role of the mother as carer and by the role of the father as a form of power. In the beginning, the child considers the mother as the first subject to love and identifies with the mother. In a later stage however, however the child gets separated from the mother by forming its own subjectivity. For boys this process happens by experiencing the father as a symbol of power and realizing that the desire to possess the mother leads to the punishment of castration. Hence, boys start to identify rather with their father which represents masculinity and strength. Girls however undergo a more complex development of the self as they usually identify with their mother to a certain degree. On the contrary, with the father they cannot identify as he differs from girls by having a Phallus (male sexual organ). Hence, girls can never become like their father and therefore reach out to get a child with a man which reminds them of their father. In that sense, psychoanalysis refers to the process of becoming a human throughout history and as subject formation depends on specific historical circumstances, changes of culture can lead to the change of the subject formation.
Both structuralism and poststructuralism indicate that subjects are formed due to difference. One is what he is not.
Feminism is a field related to the issue of gender differences and inequality. As women are often subordinated by men in social relations, liberal feminists demand equality between women and men in order to eliminate the unequal power structures. Social feminists go a step further and connect gender to class by arguing that increasing capitalism reproduces gender inequalities for women. However, radical feminists emphasize and celebrate the difference between women and men in order to demonstrate the value of being a woman. Moreover, the superiority by men is also demonstrated with the concept of patriarchy which is often criticized as it treats women generally by claiming that women have something in common which is that they all contrast men. It is important to note however that gender is a discursive construct depending on the cultural and historical context which is therefore experienced differently by everybody.
A first problem which appears in cultural studies is the one of language and material. Whereas Marxism considers culture to be related to the material mode of production and hence argues that the material determines culture, structuralism regards culture as signification and part of an autonomous language system .
A second problem is the textual character of culture. Culture can be read as texts which produce meanings. However, textual determinism can lead to the distinction between texts and the acting subject which are in fact intertwined.
A third problem poses the location of culture. Culture is located as it is limited by nationality, ethnicity or space. With the rise of globalisation however, the locality of culture got challenged. Increasing movement and communication facilities together with translocal processes allowed distinct cultures to mix and hence, culture became less locally bounded and rather a hybrid form in the global space.
A fourth issue is the limit of rationality. Cultural studies uses rationality in order to explain culture. However, rational thinking is likely to control and dominate emotions and affection which play within culture as well and make culture a matter of perspective and non-universal.
A fifth problem is the issue of truth. Cultural studies increasingly rejected the notion of one universal truth. Truth is rather subjective and determined by independent interpretations. However, truth evolves through discourses which are constrained to specific cultures.
Cultural studies is a multidisciplinary field in which culture represents and produces different meanings within a context of social practices and power. Hence, cultural studies researches how meanings are produced within our continuously developing society.
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