Study Guide

Cultural Studies Texts

  • Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)

    The first of Angelou's autobiographical works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings provides a frank look at the author's childhood, dealing with themes of racial discrimination, segregation, and determination in face of hardship. It gives us an insider's perspective, with Maya highlighting these themes by remembering how she dealt with these struggles when she was a kid. The book demonstrates Angelou's perseverance and a whole spider's web of contemporary societal problems.

    How do Angelou's methods of playing with the convention of autobiographical form impact the way we read the cultural elements of the story, such as race, gender, violence, and discrimination?

  • Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962)

    Best known as the source text for Kubrick's movie, this novel is set in a near-future where teen gangs are running wild and engaging in acts of brutal violence, until a revolutionary—and controversial—new form of treatment suggests a possible way of stopping crime for good by brainwashing criminals into feeling sickly at the mere thought of fisticuffs. The plot follows fifteen-year-old Alex as he goes from violent criminal to test subject before finally being released back into society, with Burgess posing a range of ethical questions along the way.

    The book's title is an important metaphor—what might this mechanical fruit have to do with the themes tackled throughout the novel?

    Burgess argues that morality should come from free will. How does the debate about whether the "Ludovico technique" is unethical or whether the results justify the process fit into the ethical concerns addressed in cultural studies more broadly?

  • Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (2010)

    Franzen's epic saga of American life follows the trials and tribulations of the Berglund family, exploring the dynamics of nuclear family lifestyle in modern-day America. Dramatic as the novel is, it's more than a Days of Our Lives-esque soap opera, though; it also uses this framework to explore contemporary issues relating to environmentalism, consumer culture, the Iraq war, and life during and after 9/11.

    One of the topics that have often been debated within cultural studies is the role and influence of media texts. What is Franzen's take on the media in this novel?

    Think about how the theme of freedom is treated throughout the novel: can freedom truly exist and, if so, are there different types of freedom? Likewise, is freedom always a good thing (like, can the term be abused, or can there be too much freedom)?

  • Allen Ginsberg, " America" in Howl and Other Poems (1956)

    A quintessential "beat" poem, "America is frenzied, eclectic, and unpolished. Given that it's part of a collection called Howl, it's fitting that it reads as an epic rant—in this case, against the title country, which Ginsberg condemns for the dominance of political propaganda and the power of the media. Still, Ginsberg also conveys a more serious, earnest sentiment beneath all the bluster, showing some sense of connection to his homeland, no matter how much it's been beat down (get it? Because he's a beat poet).

    Think about the chaotic form of Ginsberg's poem and its use of absurdity and satire. Does this help or take away from the serious points that it makes? How does that fit into the "high vs. low culture" debates of early cultural studies theorists?

    This poem was written in 1956. How might a cultural studies scholar find it relevant to present-day America, and the Western world in general?

  • Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938)

    Laying the groundwork for Rand's way-more-famous later works, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), Anthem encapsulates the themes that Rand was to explore throughout her career, using a sci-fi setting to highlight contemporary themes. Specifically, she gives the no-no to the suppression of individualism and individual achievement in the name of social conformity and obedience. Think Battlestar Galactica meets Joseph Stalin.

    The narrator refers to the term "we" as a monster, concluding that the word "Ego" is what's really sacred. How could "we" be monstrous in the society Rand depicts? How might a cultural studies scholar draw a parallel between that fictional monster and aspects of the modern world?

  • Anne Sexton, "Cinderella" in Transformations (1971)

    More Grimm (not to mention grim) than Disney, this collection is made up of poetic retellings of classic fairytales. The story of Cinderella is so well known that it's become a cliché, and Sexton's poem takes advantage of this by remixing the tale to show how empty fairytale endings would be in real society.

    Sexton's poem—which uses pretty poetic language but also sarcasm and a bunch of pop culture references—starts by drawing parallels to similar rags-to-riches fantasies, then presents the ugly stepsisters and handsome princes and glass slippers we're all familiar with, then shows how paralyzingly false the whole idea of "happily ever after" really is, hinting at its detachment from the realities of human life. Basically, she questions the concept of the fairytale ideal as a whole.

    Unlike the whimsical language typically found in fairytales, Sexton includes lots of references to modern everyday life and concludes that Cindy and Prince Charming end up "like two dolls in a museum case." What does that say about the role of the fairytale ending in contemporary society?

  • Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

    Way before Ayn Rand took a stab at sci-fi, Shelley's original Frankenstein tapped into the scientific advances and experimentations of the day to depict Doctor Victor Frankenstein and his freaky obsession with conquering death as it becomes a quest to inject life into organic matter.

    Vic co-opts the reproductive power of nature to bring his monster to life, but he finds himself horrified by the creature that emerges from his experiments. Even though the guy didn't have green skin and a square haircut and bolts through his neck in the original piece, the pain and confusion faced by the creature are even worse than those fashion no-nos, since the poor guy's been created only to be abandoned and persecuted.

    How does the tension between scientific experimentation and humanity bring up ethical concerns during the time Shelley was writing? What parallel issues are there today?

  • John Steinbeck, The Pearl (1947)

    In this parable, Steinbeck tells the tale of a couple whose lives are changed forever after finding a pearl that they believe will end all their problems. Sounds simple, right? As it turns out, the pearl is only the start of their problems, and Steinbeck uses the motif of the pearl to explore the dark side of human nature—in particular, the corrupting influence of greed and materialism.

    How does the representation of greed, especially as it affects the way people interact with others who are different from themselves, engage with Marxist theory?

  • Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967)

    Stoppard's play is a fresh take on Hamlet, in which he lifts two of the minor comedic yet ill-fated characters from Shakespeare's play and revamps the plot so that it plays out from their perspectives.

    This knowing, play-within-a-play approach signals that we're reading/watching a piece of meta-theater, with Stoppard evoking Samuel Beckett as much as Shakespeare. Ultimately, Stoppard's play is less concerned with driving the action forward than with listening to the banter of these characters, a semi-absurdist approach that turns theatrical conventions on their head.

    How is the relationship between art and life explored within this play and to what effect? In what ways could the play be seen as a postmodern text?

  • Dialectic of Enlightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (1944)

    Modern cultural studies may focus on ways in which people create their own meanings out of mass culture, but in the days of the Frankfurt school, this was a whole other kettle of culturally determined fish. For these guys, it had become pretty clear that the social revolution Marx had prophesized wasn't happening, and that capitalism—and the class inequality that accompanied it—was doing just fine, thank you very much.

    Adorno and Horkheimer set out to discover why this was the case, and ended up pointing the finger of blame squarely at mass culture. Dialectic of Enlightenment is key reading for anyone interested in the reasoning and politics that were at the heart of the Frankfurt school and its condemnation of the mass media and group mentality in larger society.

    So here's some questions: why did Adorno and Horkheimer have such beef with mass culture? If it wasn't just snobbery, what was it? Also, what have they got against pleasure? Do they understand it differently than other fun-lovin' folk, or is there another reason they insist on disrupting it?

  • Mythologies by Roland Barthes (1973)

    The subject matter and analytic approach Barthes presents in Mythologies later became popularized within the cultural studies branch of academia because they applied to more than just myth in the old-school sense—for better or worse, the likes of The Iliad and The Odyssey aren't required reading.

    Instead of focusing on the ancient epics you encounter in freshmen year English classes, Barthes uses the concept of myth to focus on mass culture, exploring the potential meanings coded within the texts and objects that make up our everyday lives.

    Though he sees myth as infiltrating culture as a whole, Barthes notes that some types of language are more easily infiltrated than others. What characteristics does Barthes point to as encouraging/resisting myth? How are these sorts of myths received by the reader? Does the reader consume the myth and experience it as "natural," or are there modes of analysis that might involve deeper digging and demystification? Basically, anything from your favorite food to toys to wrestling matches has a specific meaning understandable to members of contemporary society.

  • Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity by Judith Butler (1990)

    Feminist criticism has become a major part of cultural studies research, and if there's one name that stands out in this area it's Butler. In this book, Butler channels the spirit of Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser—namely, their interest in how power operates in daily life—but brings gender into the mix. Spicy!

    Specifically, she talks about how gender roles and behavior are ingrained and socially prescribed rather than a matter of "choice." She emphasizes the performativity of gender, meaning it's something you do to fit into the social role people expect of you in daily life, whereas performance is way more deliberate, because it usually involves climbing onstage and trying to earn some dollars while you shake your groove thing.

    If performativity is the ingrained repetition of gendered norms, are there any potential openings for agency and subversion? If so, under what conditions might this be possible?

    "Identity" is a big debate word within cultural studies. Whether we're talking about individuals or groups of individuals, is a sense of unity what we should be setting our sights on? How is the answer to that question different if you're talking about literature vs. a protest movement, for example?

  • Cultural Studies by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler (editors) (1992)

    This collection was—and is—a cornerstone of cultural studies in the United States. The book reads like a "who's who" of international researchers on cultural studies-y topics and covers pretty much every area you could wish for, making it a classic text for anyone wanting to get a flavor of cultural studies scholarship.

    Seriously, where else but cultural studies would you find Shakespeare, Rambo, and Hustler in the same place?

    While cultural studies doesn't conform to disciplinary boundaries, Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler emphasize that we need to identify some recurring aspects in this field rather than just proudly crowing "it can't be defined." What are the plusses and minuses of avoiding a specific definition of this area of studies? Why is that part of what makes cultural studies cultural studies?

  • The Uses of Literacy by Richard Hoggart (1957)

    The great grandpappy of cultural studies texts, this book focuses on the impact of mass production on working-class culture in the United Kingdom. Totally relevant today, right? What's still key, though, is the way it was researched: examining newspapers, magazines, advertising, movies, and pulp fiction, Hoggart argues that mass culture had robbed working-class communities of their individual identities.

    Another ah-hah here is the way Hoggart also points out that this isn't a question of "high vs. low" culture or criticizing the "popular" —instead, it's about the values and culture of local communities being stamped on by mass culture.

    Hoggart emphasizes that even though some critics see the working classes as being doped by "the authorities," some producers of mass literature are from working-class backgrounds. So the million-dollar question: why do folks from the working class produce material that seems hollow and superficial? Is it pure greed, or trying to entertain their buddies, or some deeper reason?

    Though he criticizes the trash-tastic content of contemporary magazines, Hoggart doesn't just dismiss this or see it as brainwashing—he observes what he calls "a remnant of a healthier quality"—some sort of appeal to the reader's curiosity. Is that nod to curiosity meant to suggest a thirst for knowledge? How does that alter the conception of how the individual fits into mass culture?

  • The Uses of Cultural Studies by Angela McRobbie (2005)

    McRobbie was one of the major feminist voices in the Birmingham school and produced a range of studies—such as on teen girls' magazines, which is a surprisingly fruitful spot for cultural analysis when you think about it.

    This book picks up topics relating to gender, ethnicity, colonialism, and capitalism, plus theorists such as Stuart Hall, Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, and Pierre Bourdieu.

    One example: McRobbie discusses that chick-lit (or chick flick, if you didn't know it was a book first) classic Bridget Jones's Diary, and talks about Bridget being "post-feminist" because she daydreams about living the conventional fantasy (you know, that dreamy white-picket fence scenario) even though she knows it's a cliché. In Bridget's 1990s world, feminism of the 1970s variety is seen as so yesterday, not to mention being a bit of a buzzkill—now it's all about self-aware ladies and a good dose of humor. Try that bunny costume on for size, Mr. Jameson.

    Let's consider this cultural shift: identity politics is a central topic in cultural studies, with some people seriously fed up with labels and others dying to define themselves as part of a group (for example, that feminist idea—how does it stack up with the white-picket fence thing?). Are there scenarios where being part of a category might be useful or necessary?

  • Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies by David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (editors) (1996)

    No cultural studies bibliography would be complete without Hall. In fact, there's a whole hall of texts that could be included here (well, a couple shelves, at least). This book is the prime go-to source for insight into Hall and his work, featuring essays by and interviews with the man himself, along with essays by other theorists inspired by him.

    Plus, as you probably expect by now, it's all here: Marxism, postmodernism, ethnicity, postcolonialism, the media, and the whole multi-racial, post-gender kitchen sink. Suffice it to say, this book is key reading for anyone interested in Hall's thinking and in the politics of Western culture.

    Hall—a Jamaica-born and Britain-dwelling feller—once remarked that he was "dumbfounded" by American cultural studies—partly because of the sorts of topics being studied (pop culture minus the politics), but also because of how fast the subject had made itself a comfy little home in academic institutes—you know, white-picket fence and all. So, what are the perils associated with "institutionalization"? And what are the consequences for an area of study that by definition resists definition?

  • Culture and Society by Raymond Williams (1958)

    You can't discuss cultural studies or cultural phenomena without thinking about the word "culture" itself, and that's where Williams comes in. Williams makes sure you know that it's not like "culture" has ever been just one thing—even within specific time periods and settings, folks disagreed on what could and should be classed as culture, and what the role of culture was or should be.

    This being the case, Williams sketches out a history of the concept of culture, as well as four other key words of similar cultural clout and debatable meaning—these being "art," "democracy," "class," and "industry."

    If, as Williams shows, the meaning of "culture" has changed so much over centuries, how does his analysis change when we think about what culture means beyond 1958 (the year the book was published)?

    If culture can mean different things, the same goes for mass culture. So, what's the difference between those guys?

    Plus, Williams notes that mass culture developed as a result of universal education and literacy. Does this interpretation put a more positive spin on mass culture? Should mass literacy be seen as a step toward the ability to independently analyze the world around you, or does it become a tool for the manipulators of that "mass culture" thing?