Study Guide

Cultural Studies Critics

  • Roland Barthes

    A garment, an automobile, a dish of cooked food, a gesture, a film, a piece of music, an advertising image, a piece of furniture, a newspaper headline—these indeed appear to be heterogeneous objects. What might they have in common? This at least: all are signs…this car tells me the social status of its owner, this garment tells me quite precisely the degree of its wearer's conformism or eccentricity.

    When it comes to semiotics, Barthes is your man. As he makes crystal clear in this quote, pretty much any text or object can act as a sign. Some of these things may be so much a part of modern culture that you're barely aware of them, but that doesn't mean that they're just "there." Far from it!

    As Barthes tells us, signs can come in all shapes and sizes and carry all sorts of meanings, but ultimately, the thing to remember is that they are all signs. Meaning, they all symbolize some bigger, broader thing.

    What Barthes is saying, then, is that we shouldn't take anything at face value but instead give our brains a workout to recognize the role objects play within society. Sometimes this can be pretty obvious: you don't have to be a master of semiotics to see someone wearing lots of black eyeliner and think "that Goth must not like our society much," just like the whole point of driving a BMW is to say "Hey, look how successful I am." Still, signs can sometimes fly under the radar, and it's important to remember that there's sometimes more than meets the eye.

  • Slavoj Žižek

    Walter Benjamin commended as a theoretically productive and subversive procedure the reading of the highest spiritual products of a culture alongside its common, prosaic, worldly products…It is something of the same order that has been put to work in this book: a reading of the most sublime theoretical motifs of Jacques Lacan together with and through exemplary cases of contemporary mass culture…What the reader will find in this book is a whole series of "Lacan with…": Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Highsmith, Colleen McCullough, Stephen King, etc. (If, now and then, the book also mentions "great" names like Shakespeare and Kafka, the reader need not be uneasy: they are read strictly as kitsch authors, on the same level as McCullough and King.) 


    Žižek is the sort of guy who says it like it is. And by "it," we mean a lot of name-dropping and highfalutin words mixed with the poppiest of pop. In this quote, from the introduction to his 1991 book linking psychoanalysis to the study of mass cultural phenomena, he sums up what notions of "the text" and "the author" have come to mean from a cultural studies perspective.

    Unlike traditional ideas of literary canon and the superiority of "high" culture, Žižek likes to mix things up: Lacan may be one of the most revered names in psychoanalysis, but Žižek has no qualms about transporting him into the realm of pop culture. The same goes for literature, since Žižek mentions the likes of Shakespeare and Kafka in the same breath as authors of the bestselling paperbacks you'd find at the airport or supermarket.

    Suffice it to say, Theodor Adorno would not be pleased.

    Again, we see the drastically different ways in which scholars have approached cultural studies and, particularly, the shift away from Marxist and political concerns toward a more postmodern attitude where boundaries between "high" and "low" culture no longer matter. In fact, Žižek doesn't just discuss both popular and classic literature—he makes a point of treating the "greats" as kitsch authors, knocking Shakespeare off his pedestal for a start. Now that's how to incite the wrath of literary scholars the world over!

  • Raymond Williams

    The fifth word, culture, similarly changes, in the same critical period [during the nineteenth century]. Before this period, it had meant, primarily, the "tending of natural growth," and then, by analogy, a process of human training. But this latter use, which had usually been a culture of something, was changed, in the nineteenth century, to culture as such, a thing in itself. It came to mean, first, "a general state or habit of the mind," having close relations with the idea of human perfection. Second, it came to mean "the general state of intellectual development, in a society as a whole." Third, it came to mean "the general body of the arts." Fourth, later in the century, it came to mean "a whole way of life, material, intellectual and spiritual." It came also, as we know, to be a word which often provoked either hostility or embarrassment.

    "Culture" is a loaded term that invites a whole range of different interpretations and, as Williams shows, it has been defined and redefined over the years. This is a key thing to remember when thinking about cultural studies, as this is a branch of study that's proven especially tricky to pin down, like the word culture itself.

    This brings us back to the different ways in which theorists have interpreted "culture." Does it embody the pinnacle of human artistic achievement, or does it refer to any and all texts produced in a given context? And what about all those spicy political and economic issues that fired up the Frankfurt and Birmingham schools? Answer: all of the above. Always.

    As Williams highlights, culture can mean different things to different people, and doesn't necessarily carry the same meanings in all time periods and contexts. In other words, you can't talk about "cultural studies" without first tackling the concept of culture itself.

  • Richard Hoggart

    One of the issues I've never developed as I would have liked to is the contrast between, and the real meaning of the relationships between, local cultures and the great organs of persuasion, whether they be the mass media or whatever. I've certainly never belonged, though I have been accused of it, to the group that says nothing really happens to people as a result of the media since they're so much part of the local culture they belong to...I also don't believe that they're blank slates waiting to be written on; but the relationship between the two is something to do with a kind of transmutation, with the way people will take things offered to them and transmute them into the terms of their own culture. But the media aren't in business for nothing and there is a sense in which they do have an effect and an "impact" that that's becoming more and more the case.

    There goes Hoggy-wog again with his blank slates and his transmutations. What he's taking issue with here is that one of the main issues that comes up over and over and over again in cultural studies is the question of how readers and viewers respond to cultural texts and, in particular, mass-media texts.

    Here's a trick: the key word here is "agency."

    In the early years of cultural studies, everyone made a noisy hullaballoo about how the public was being manipulated by the big, bad media, and cultural studies theorists sensed that they were smarter than all those poor, brainwashed people who were oblivious to what was going on.

    So, since academics placed themselves apart from ye olde common folke, believing that they alone had their eyes wide open to media's manipulations, they set about exposing the ways in which the masses were being kept from seeing things as they really were. There is no spoon that bends, the Matrix-esque scholars would say—the media is bending it for you.

    As cultural studies developed, though, the idea that the public was wholly brainwashed by the media seemed a mite simplistic. Not that the media doesn't have an influence: as Hoggart points out, it's not an either/or scenario. Still, there's no doubt that there's been more and more attention paid to how people receive texts and create their own meanings.

    Ultimately, it's a question of emphasis. We'll take our spoon emphasized to the left, thanks.

  • Daniel Miller

    To refer to society as "constructing itself" is to signify that these activities are based on historically given forms and peoples, and that both the subject and the object of this process are cultural, rather than natural, forms. This notion of the self as a cultural form constantly re-evaluation by social criteria is opposed to the concept of an essentialist natural self masked by the artificial nature of culture as commodity.

    Culture "constructing itself"? Huh. Weird as that sounds, Miller uses those words to emphasize the way that even things that people take for granted are the result of being created within culture, taken up by the masses, and repeated to the point that everyone thinks that's the norm.

    Like women wearing lipstick. Innate quality? Not really. But will anyone bat an eyelash? Only if it's a fake eyelash batted by drag queen—whose makeup stylings people may, surprisingly, find less "normal" than that of biological women.

    On top of construction, the topic of consumption has been another key aspect of cultural theory, as the growth of industrialization and mass production led to the rise of consumer culture (where the economy is based on people buying stuff they don't really need). Miller's point, however, is that consumerism doesn't necessarily mean that people are slaves to the commodity or that mass production causes complete loss of individuality. Truth? You decide.

    One of critics' main arguments against mass culture is that it is homogenizing: it takes away the artistry and human effort put into production, flooding the market with identical goods bought by hordes of increasingly mindless consumers. For critics, this consequently results in a loss of individuality and meaning (Walter Benjamin had plenty to say about that).

    What Miller suggests, however, is that consumers have the ability to personalize the goods that they purchase—even if goods are mass-produced, they can still mean different things to different people and people can make them their own. One person's stylin' footwear is another person's flowerpot.

    This ties in with cultural studies more generally, as it brings us back to the question of how readers and viewers respond to texts—are they powerless in the face of the text or do they have the capacity to take an active role in the creation of meaning?

  • Janice A. Radway

    Reading the Romance turns to Chodorow's revision of psychoanalytic theory in order to explain the construction of the particular desires that seem to be met by the act of romance reading. However, it additionally uses that theory to explore the psychological resonance of the romantic narrative itself for readers so constructed and engendered, a narrative that is itself precisely about the process by which female subjectivity is brought into being within the patriarchal family. Psychoanalysis is thus used also to explain why the story hails these readers, why they believe it possible to pursue their own pleasure by serving as witness to the romantic heroine's achievement of hers.

    Prescription for Love. Spellbound and Seduced. Love's Secret Sniper. Who wouldn't want to write an academic study of romance novels?

    Radway's study of female readers of romance novels is a good example of modern cultural studies in practice. First off, the topic is hardly the stuff of traditional literary analysis—romance novels aren't exactly next to Tolstoy on the shelf.

    Another point about romance novels is their popularity: they may seem like mindless fluff that doesn't merit any real attention, but the very fact that they're so popular with their intended readership marks them out as an ideal subject for cultural studies. Radway's study is also a good example of cultural studies' theory grab-bag: here, psychoanalysis (in this case, object relations theory) turns out to be useful in thinking about the mass appeal of these narratives.

    Rather than dismissing this branch of literature and its readership, then, Radway interviews the readers themselves and adopts a psychoanalytic approach so as to explore what underlying desires these novels may tap into. So next time you want to analyze For the Love of Scottie McMullet, look no further.

  • John Fiske

    If the cultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out of which the people can make their own meanings of their social relations and identities, they will be rejected and will fail in the marketplace. They will not be made popular. Popular culture is made by subordinated peoples in their own interests out of resources that also, contradictorily, serve the economic interests of the dominant. Popular culture is made from within and below, not imposed from without or above as mass cultural theorists would have it. There is always an element of popular culture that lies outside social control, that escapes or opposes hegemonic forces. Popular culture is always a culture of conflict, it always involves the struggle to make social meanings that are in the interests of the subordinate and that are not those preferred by the dominant ideology. The victories, however fleeting or limited, in this struggle produce popular pleasure, for popular pleasure is always social and political.

    Who knew pleasure could mean so many things? Popular culture is, for Fiske, ambivalent: on the one hand, there's no point romanticizing it, since mass-produced goods and texts are produced along strict lines so the top dogs can bring home the bacon and the little man stays entertained. On the other hand, the public doesn't want to feel that it's being force-fed something, and that individuals don't have any say.

    Cultural theorists have therefore developed more nuanced accounts of how pop culture works. When he argues that culture is always political, Fiske is saying that it relates to the distribution and redistribution of social power. So, pop culture isn't just about entertainment and escapism: the watcher's escape into TV-zone-out-land means big bucks for the show producer. Still, for culture to live up to its name, people have to feel that it's something that they can relate to and engage with in one way or another.

    Ultimately, Fiske doesn't see culture as some sort of monolithic force that's either good or bad, but as something pretty paradoxical: it's a type of output that disempowered people can engage with, even though it's provided by the very system that disempowers the folks at home.

  • Judith Butler

    Hence, there is a subversive laughter in the pastiche-effect of parodic practices in which the original, the authentic, and the real are themselves constituted as effects. The loss of gender norms would have the effect of proliferating gender configurations, destabilizing substantive identity, and depriving the naturalizing narratives of compulsory heterosexuality of their central protagonists: "man" and "woman." The parodic repetition of gender exposes as well the illusion of gender identity as an intractable depth and inner substance. As the effects of a subtle and politically enforced performativity, gender is an "act," as it were, that is open to splitting, self-parody, self-criticism, and those hyperbolic exhibitions of "the natural" that, in their very exaggeration, reveal its fundamentally phantasmatic status.

    So that's crystal clear, right?

    Judith Butler is well known for her work on social constructions of gender and how they operate in daily life. She's also known for using words even the dictionary didn't know exist. What's key to Butler's approach, though, is the idea that gender is a type of behavior you perform, rather than something natural. And that hinges on the distinction between "performance" and "performativity."

    So what do you do with an ance vs. an ivity? Well, "performativity" is meant to refer to the way cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity are internalized and act as a shaping (read: constraining) force in a person's daily activities and self-image. "Performance," meanwhile, is the exaggeration and parody of standard gender roles, showing that they're constructed rather than "natural."

    So, performativity is why you expect a housekeeper to behave like a cooking, cleaning, cultivated lady, and performance is when those stereotypical roles are proven not to be as natural as you might think.

    Butler highlights the relevance of feminist thought within cultural studies. She also taps into the rebellious aspects of this theoretical school, refusing to accept standard definitions and playing with the categories of masculinity and femininity in a way that shook things up even within academia.

  • Stuart Hall

    Reality exists outside language, but it is constantly mediated by and through language: and what we can know and say has to be produced in and through discourse. Discursive "knowledge" is the product not of the transparent representation of the "real" in language but of the articulation of language on real relations and conditions. Thus there is no intelligible discourse without the operation of a code.

    Hall isn't just saying that an "e" actually means a "q" or two dots stand for yes, one dash for no, when he emphasizes the importance of codes in communication. He means that when we read a text, we're presented with an encoded meaning that we're supposed to decode or interpret. Whether we decode it the way we're supposed to is a different matter: while a reader may sometimes interpret a text in the way desired by its producer, there's also the possibility of reading against the grain.

    Sometimes a reader or viewer may depart from the encoded meaning to a minor extent; other times, they may interpret the text in a completely different, even oppositional, manner to what was intended. This can be particularly annoying for producers of media such as advertising, whose goal is to evoke particular responses on the part of potential consumers.

    So, when an ad makes fun of celebrity endorsements, will the watcher interpret that as the company being honest about their advertisement and drink Sprite, or will they see it as an even more blatant money-making campaign and drink Sierra Mist instead?

    What Hall is saying in the quote is that, while codes may become naturalized, they're codes all the same: they represent meanings that seem universal but that doesn't mean that they're natural and free from ulterior motives. Maybe Sprite actually tastes good, or maybe we just think so because famous athletes tell us so.