Cover Story, Issue, World — April 2, 2008 at 2:58 am

Five Lessons in Cultural Studies

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Illustration by Maria Insalaco

Borges, Cervantes, Neruda, García Márquez—these were the canonical legends of Hispanic literature whom I expected to encounter in my Introduction to Hispanic Cultures course last fall. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the expected books were almost entirely absent from our syllabus. In lieu of these Spanish and Latin American authors, the class focused on works by the likes of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Néstor García Canclini, and Edward Said.

The course was born from the consolidation of the Latin American studies and Spanish language and literature majors into the new Hispanic Studies major. But this revamped program was no minor change in nomenclature; it presented a new outlook on regional studies via a focal shift from the historical and the literary to the cultural.

If I had done my background research on the introductory course, I would have known that it was not meant to repeat AP Spanish Literature. Instead, its purpose was to introduce us to “the fundamental vocabulary for the analysis of cultural objects,” a vocabulary which derives from scholarly movements grouped under the banner of cultural studies that aim to examine cultural phenomena of all types within their sociopolitical and global contexts.
Such curricular reforms are not limited to a single department, nor are they a uniquely Columbian phenomenon. Throughout the country, universities are signing on to a more cultural approach to area studies. Moreover, as the revised Hispanic studies program makes clear, this method of study is increasingly infringing upon the territory of the old area studies programs and reconstructing the way in which students learn and interpret different cultures.

New cultural studies programs broaden the academic focus of more traditional programs by incorporating history, economics, politics, literature, philosophy, visual arts, popular culture, and music into their analyses, recognizing that they all derive from and express the same social context. As Cathy Popkin, chair of Columbia’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, explains, “[a] broad major program … teaches you that you can’t limit things to one discipline because not only are they interrelated, but they write each other.”

For me, it was through this natural and unavoidable interconnectedness of the various means of cultural production and their surrounding social, political, and economic climates that the bigger picture began to develop.

Lesson 1: Conflicts and Disciplines
Traditionally, regional studies have been divided into two separate paths: one within the social sciences and the other within the humanities. Both approaches were institutionally established with their own objects of study. The social sciences featured two distinct methods of regional focus. The first allowed students to follow a particular disciplinary track, such as history or anthropology, while drawing on case studies from an individual area. The other presented a more holistic approach, dubbed “area studies.” The humanities were home to the oldest and most traditional programs, focusing predominantly on literature and linguistics.

Area studies have created their own interdisciplinary departments, adopting the methodologies of the social sciences as their own while literature is pursued in conjunction with foreign language studies. This divided academic front separated the artistic and the sociopolitical, often leaving both fields with an incomplete picture of foreign cultures.

That’s not to say that a Spanish major should be able to complete an undergraduate degree in their field without reading One Hundred Years of Solitude or delving into the verbal labyrinths of Borges’s Ficciones—but what use do they serve if the students never learn the significance of the banana plantation in Macondo, or the literary critiques made through Pierre Menard? Similarly, discussions on the impact of factor endowments and political regimes on underdevelopment can seem to miss the point if one doesn’t understand the profound psychological affects they have had on a society.

Still, universities have only recently begun to formally adapt cultural studies to existing programs, and only a small handful of universities have freestanding cultural studies programs. Cultural studies wander in and out of disciplines, borrowing techniques from fields ranging from sociology and cultural anthropology to philosophy, communications, and literary criticism; they incorporate the theories and criticisms of the Frankfurt and Birmingham Schools, postmodernism, racial theory, postcolonialism, feminism, and post-structuralism, to name a few.

In short, literature, politics, art, economics, and other fields typically subjected to disciplinary isolation did not develop in a bubble. Their true significance—and thus value—is only visible with analyses from multiple, discipline-crossing perspectives.

Lesson 2: Overlapping Histories
While the study of literature has been around for centuries, area studies and cultural studies are relatively recent phenomena and present two distinct approaches to studying and understanding a region and people. The dissimilarities between area studies and cultural studies derive from their historical trajectories, which show how the two approaches developed to achieve different academic objectives.

Both fields emerged in the aftermath of World War II: traditional area studies as an effort to attain a more holistic understanding of the non-Western regions with which Europeans and Americans had been thrown into contact; cultural studies as a transdisciplinary attempt to better relate academic studies to the lives of working-class students. But cultural studies demand a specific take on analyzing the historical context in which an item was produced: they examine the power dynamics that led to and fought against the object’s construction.

The phrase “cultural studies” was coined in 1964 by British scholar Richard Hoggart, founder of the seminal Centre for Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham, and was later associated with Hoggart’s successor, Stuart Hall.

Hall’s exploration of the relationship between political economy and cultural production spurred the development of a new intellectual movement he once described as “an attempt to address the manifest break-up of traditional culture, especially traditional class cultures” as post-war Britain faced significant internal changes, including changes in student demographics. In particular, post-war reconstruction extended educational opportunities to more adults, often from the working classes.

In one attempt to better relate their coursework to their students, both Hoggart and Hall innovated another curricular reconfiguration through the inclusion of popular culture. Hoggart asserted that only “authentic” popular culture, in contrast with imported “mass” culture, was “directly and experientially connected to the social condition of the working classes” often excluded from academic discourses.

This level of popular culture is often linked to rural communities with local traditions distinct from the more mass-produced culture of urban areas and the global arena. Formally studying popular culture, Hoggart argued, allows a glimpse beyond the “high culture” of the social elite and can provide insight into differences and tensions between social classes.

While popular culture may or may not be an “authentic” expression of working class sentiments or the native rural experience, it can point to what is specific to a region’s sociopolitical atmosphere more clearly than films, television shows, and novels created abroad. Moreover, by moving away from a solely literary focus, one can glimpse the world of those whose voices have been absent from literary production.

It was through the adoption of the ideas of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci that the founders of cultural studies further developed their method of study. Gramsci argued that cultural dominance or hegemony was a key component of social and political control. The founders of cultural studies expanded the theory’s area of application and urged academics to view cultural norms—such as beliefs, institutions, and traditions —as founded on the struggles between social, political, or economic factions.

As academic approaches converge and move away from highly focused studies of single disciplines, cultural products become increasingly important as primary sources. In this way, they offer a wider lens through which Westerners can examine another people and their sociopolitical interactions.

Lesson 3: Interrogating the Facts
In his summary text Introducing Cultural Studies, Ziauddin Sardar defines one of the primary characteristics of cultural studies as exposing “power relationships and how they influence and shape cultural practices.” The Introduction to Hispanic Cultures course asked students to begin exploring these relationships.

Via thematical units, our instructor challenged us to reevaluate preconceived notions of concepts as common as geography, language, history, and nation and their relationship with cultural production.

For example, let’s take the notion of studying a people based on geographic parameters. Some scholars claim that the name “area studies” is frustratingly ambiguous, if not outright suspicious. What area are we looking at? What determines the boundaries of this region? The mapping of a region is a questionable process in and of itself, a redrawing of the world according to the whims of the proverbial Euroamerican mapmaker. Vicente Rafael, a history professor at the University of Washington, sees the definition of “cultural spheres” as the source of restrictive regionalism—sociopolitical and cultural oversimplification because of emphasis on geographic locale. This false homogenization, he stresses, depends on the “arbitrary and power-laden practice of mapping.”

In this way, cultural studies also present a shift in perspective, encouraging students to enter into a constant state of interrogation of their object of study. University Professor Edward Said once commented, “[H]ow does one know that ‘things exist,’ and to what extent are the ‘things that exist’ constituted by the knower?” In this new method of inquiry, students of cultural studies scrutinize the history of knowledge-making as well as the history of knowledge; the very constitution of “facts” is studied.

Because cultural studies presupposes that power relations drive the creation of cultural phenomena, the formation of culture and its social agents become central objects of study, sometimes even more significant than the final products themselves. History is no longer fact, but rather a specific and contingent account. Culture is no longer simply culture, but the artistic and behavioral elements of a specific group.

Lesson 4: Nothing is Perfect
Cultural studies are, of course, not without their faults. If transdisciplinarity makes cultural studies a cutting-edge academic perspective, this institutional maverick’s challenges to traditional disciplines also leave it vulnerable.

The foremost criticism of cultural studies is the very breadth of its object of study: the somewhat amorphous realm of culture. John Carlos Rowe, a scholar of American studies and professor at the University of Southern California, has addressed the difficulty in studying such a “vast, inchoate” and “undecidable term.” Its all-encompassing nature has provoked questions about the level of expertise one can develop in the field of cultural studies and even in regional studies when focusing on cultural production at large.

Rowe further questions whether culture can “possibly constitute an object of study, as a discrete text can be said to be, when we know that ‘culture’ is composed of a vast number of different, competing representations.” The analysis of culture faces so many problems of interpretation that the idea of examining culture as a single object of study can seem Sisyphean, even quixotic. And as a cross-disciplinary approach, cultural studies lack the institutional security and methodological foundations of area studies and literature programs, challenging its legitimacy as a method of study.

Finally, the cultural studies approach has been accused of overpoliticizing culture. While scholars in this field ascribe art, literature, film and other creations to power struggles, they reckon with the possibility of partial freedom from sociopolitical ideology. Cultural studies is haunted by the possibility of artistic and cultural autonomy—and therefore a “self-contained” approach to studying art and culture.

Lesson 5: Learning to Question Ourselves
Despite the persistent questions directed at its premises from inside and outside the field, the study of culture in a broad sense is a crucial tactic in attempting to understand other cultures. In our post-September 11th context, the government seeks a greater understanding of particular foreign societies. Cultural studies, with its scrutiny of former American attempts to understand other regions of the world, calls recent attempts into question. Cold War area studies were pursued “not as scholarly activities,” Edward Said once remarked, “but as instruments of national policy towards the newly independent, and possibly intractable nations of the postcolonial world.” Carlos Alonso, chair of Columbia’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, echoes this criticism in a warning. “Knowledge is never innocent,” he says, adding that a greater understanding of a region “can be used to make a culture more pliable and penetrable” by those seeking to exploit it. Cultural studies insists that we inspect knowledge for this instrumentality; it asks us to be suspicious of recent American knowledge-making.

In many ways, curricular repositionings like those at Columbia limit oversimplifications of regional culture by providing students with a deeper understanding of their inner workings, including an awareness of their underlying social and political tensions, power struggles, and cultural production. They attempt to present “the other” from within, using its own cultural phenomena as primary sources and so provide key insight into how groups within society perceive and interact with each other and the world.

But it is this very attempt to see “the other” from an internal vantage point that many Americans see as a danger to our own culture. When immersing yourself in the perspective of others, you must also submit yourself to their vision of your own cultural reality. In examining the international order from another’s point of view, we are forced to not only see – and more importantly, experience – the way in which others perceive and evaluate our own way of life. In doing so, we run the risk of destabilizing our perceptions of our own history and calling into question the foundations of our own cultural heritage. While this may not be true for every reader of a foreign text, the perceptions of the United States in other cultures is sure to shock, or at least strike a chord with, a few. Perhaps herein lies the untapped potential of culturally-based studies.

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