Study Guide

Cultural Studies Timeline

How It All Went Down

1867: Karl Marx's Das Kapital (vol. 1)

Karl was always the odd one out when he hung with his jokester nephews Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. He didn't know how to crack a joke, but he sure could whip out some social theory.

Even though cultural studies ended up drifting away from its Marxist roots, it's worth remembering that Marx's work played a major role for early theorists in the Frankfurt and Birmingham schools. While cultural studies stemmed from Marxism in its aim to analyze the effects of the economy, consumption, and mass ideology on society, its key theorists branched out from Marx's economic model to analyze culture in a wider sense.

1930: Max Horkheimer becomes director of the Institute for Social Research at the Goethe University Frankfurt am Main

Sheesh, the guys in charge of naming that university sure weren't known for their catchy titles. Anyway, the Institute was already established by 1930, but Horkheimer's arrival as director marked the birth of what we now know as the Frankfurt school. Recruiting cohorts with know-how in philosophy, sociology, and psychoanalysis, Horkheimer made it his mission to address the failures of conventional Marxism and look for alternative ways of thinking about contemporary culture.

1944: Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment

Psst…here's a secret: Horkheimer and Adorno had issues with mass culture. Gasp! They wrote this book about how the whole way intellectual history developed—based on using reason and logic in philosophy as well as science—had led to a sort of elitist, mind-control form of society.

Of all the Frankfurt school's publications, this is the one that's had the most impact within cultural studies. In addition to calling out the flaws of that reason thing, it raised questions about what can and should be defined as "culture" and what the role of culture is in everyday life.

1957: Richard Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy

Hey, quit hoggin' this branch of theory! Widely regarded as one of cultural studies' founding texts, this book focused on the impact of mass culture on British working-class communities. Hoggart was concerned that small-town values seemed to have been snowed under by the dominant culture. By combining sociology with literary criticism, this book foreshadowed the sorts of themes that would later come to the fore in cultural studies.

1958: Raymond Williams' Culture and Society 

Hot on the heels of Hoggart (try saying that fast) came another major work, this time charting the concept of culture as it developed from 1780 to 1950. Williams explored various interpretations of culture—as a state of human perfection, a term relating to art and literature, and a descriptor for life in all its aspects, for example—in this giant study. Basically, he highlights culture as a shifting concept rather than a fixed term.

1960: New Left Review (NLR) begins publication

With Stuart Hall as its first editor, this journal (which is still left and kicking today) featured an all-star lineup of contributors, with sluggers such as Jacques-the-Block Lacan, Antonio Grand-slam Gramsci, Jean-Paul " sock-it-to-'em" Sartre, the original Louisville Louis Althusser, Walter " Bubba" Benjamin, and also Theodor Adorno. The NLR featured debates on major political topics such as the Cold War, Marxist critiques of capitalism and consumer culture, and articles focusing on pop culture.

1964: Founding of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS)
(CCCS) at the University of Birmingham

If there's one key event in the cultural studies saga then it's probably the setting up of the CCCS, when cultural studies was born as a full-blown area of academic study. The creation of the CCCS brought together some of the big names in the field (including its founder, Richard Hoggart). Plus, as we've seen, it shook things up by opening the doors for interdisciplinary study and the sorts of topics that weren't exactly the stuff of traditional academia.

1971: Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks in first English translation

With Marxism's fall from glory, Gramsci became the theorist of choice for Stuart Hall and the fellows at the CCCS. Gramsci may have been writing in the context of Italy in the 1920s and 1930s, but he was asking the same sorts of questions that made the Birminghammers tick: chiefly, why working-class people supported regimes that didn't seem to be in their best interests.

With that question as his guiding light, Gramsci moved away from pure economics to focus on everyday culture as a means of social control. The translation of his notebooks in 1971 brought his work to the English-speaking world. The result? Gramsci became one of the most frequently cited theorists of the twentieth century.

Early 1970s: Feminist scholars make their mark at the CCCS

The CCCS had gotten off to a flying start, but by the early 1970s, feminists were pointing to the Centre's lack of attention to how gender played into their favorite questions of class, the media, and mass culture. This led to feminist academics (including Angela McRobbie, Rosalind Coward, Dorothy Hobson, and Charlotte Brunsdon) bursting onto the scene and making a big impact within both the CCCS and cultural studies in general.

1978: Canada's first cultural studies program is offered at Trent University, Ontario

In contrast to the United States, cultural studies had been more of an underground presence in Canada: 1978 was notable due to the founding of the first cultural studies program in the country. However, as a result of freezes in hiring (not just in that icy terrain) within the public university system, it would be another twenty-five years before cultural studies could really get going north of the border. Still, this marked the spread of the discipline into new territories—first Ontario, next THE WORLD!

Late 1970s-1980s: Growth of cultural studies in Australia

Cultural studies continued to extend its pop-culture-loving tentacles across the globe. While there has never been an Australian equivalent to the CCCS, interdisciplinary research became more common in the 1970s and 1980s.

New institutions set themselves up as alternatives to the established universities and carried out research in areas such as comparative literature, communication, and cultural studies. There was a sense that this represented a move toward more progressive, up-to-the-minute research. Basically, putting another shrimp on the barbie for the great big cookout that is academia.

1982: The United Kingdom's Open University (OU) launches a unit on popular culture

The Open University's mission is all about being, well, open, both to people and to ideas. The OU had already introduced a Mass Communication and Society course in 1977, and the early 1980s saw the launch of several interdisciplinary modules with names like "Inquiry," "Third World Studies," and "The Changing Experience of Women."

The "Popular Culture" course (1982-1987) was a key moment in the history of cultural studies, bringing together literary studies, history, and sociology (not to mention benefiting from Stuart Hall's role as Professor of Sociology).

1983: Series of international cultural studies events at the University of Illinois

This was a big year for cultural studies in America: for the first time, scholars whose names were famous in the field showed up to chat about cultural studies in an academic setting, when the University of Illinois hosted a series of courses under the title "Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture: Limits, Frontiers, Boundaries."

Featuring cultural studies celebs such as Stuart Hall, Frederic Jameson, and Gayatri Spivak, this series culminated in an international research conference and signaled that cultural studies had well and truly arrived on the map.

1992: Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula Treichler's Cultural Studies

Continuing the growth of cultural studies in America, this essay collection featured contributions by a long list of academics (Stuart Hall, Donna Haraway, John Fiske, and Janice Radway, to name just a few) and made a big splash, seeming to announce the 1990s as the decade in which cultural studies—always on the fringes of traditional academia—was going to make get in with the cool crowd.

1990s: Cultural Studies enters the mainstream in Australia

While cultural studies had become a cutting-edge research area in the new institutions of the 1970s and 1980s, the 1990s saw scholars moving into the traditional universities (partly due to new funding models that favored established institutions). Cultural studies became more and more institutionalized, with universities catering for interest in loads of newfangled subject areas.

Was cultural studies losing its alternative edge? Not totally, but nothing says mainstream like official organizations and book titles: in 1992 the Cultural Studies Association of Australia (now enlarged to Australasia) was launched, and a year later saw the publication of two key texts: Australian Cultural Studies: A Reader (edited by John Frow and Meaghan Morris) and Nation, Culture, Text (edited by Graeme Turner). Can't tie that kangaroo down, sport.

2002: Closing of the CCCS

The end of an era, and controversial to its final breath: despite campaigns, support letters, and national press attention, the CCCS closed its doors in 2002. Why did Birmingham give its edgiest institution the boot? Three reasons of varying truthiness: 

  • poor findings made by external assessment teams
  • the University finally snatched its chance to get rid of a department that had long been seen as troublesome
  • economic pressures to do with public funding (that's what the campaigners said—best for PR, after all)

Don't get in a twist about the real reason—whatever the case, this marked the end of a major chapter in the history of cultural studies.

2003: The Canadian Association of Cultural Studies (CACS) is founded

Even as the UK waved farewell to its oldest cultural studies hub, Canada was upping the ante. Financial setbacks had delayed the progress of cultural studies in Canada, but the millennium marked a turning point. Universities were beginning to recruit substantial numbers again, so the second course in cultural studies was finally founded at McMaster University. The launch of the CACS gloriously signaled a more visible presence for research in this area.

2003: The Cultural Studies Association (CSA) is founded in the United States

The biggest Cultural Studies network in the States, the CSA was set up to promote both individual projects and cultural studies as a whole. It also had the goal of creating a community of researchers working in similar areas.

The CSA publishes a journal, Lateral, and has divisions specializing in theory, feminist studies, literature, film, war, race, policy…you name it.

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