After exploring new (digital/social/emergent) media through a variety of media studies lenses, we began looking at the possibilities these media present for democratic political projects. This week we begin our next theoretical turn: into the interdisciplinary field of “cultural studies.” This will provide tools to help us think about the relationship between new media and changing configurations of power. It’s only in the context of the latter that possibilities for social and environmental change can be understood in their complexity.
“Cultural studies” is a term that’s sometimes used very generically: you’ll see it used this way in some bookstores, where the “cultural studies” section is a smorgasbord of books devoted to topics ranging from gender, sexuality, race, popular culture, media, politics, and much more.
Strictly speaking, however, the term refers to an interdisciplinary academic field that emerged in Britain in the 1950s and spread in North America and elsewhere from the 1970s on. In some universities it is its own program; in many it is found in other programs (most commonly, in the U.S., in literature departments and American studies programs). It draws on established disciplines — such as sociology, anthropology, literary studies, media and communication studies, philosophy, and political theory — but typically weaves them together around a concern over how culture intersects with power and how social change occurs (or might occur). It is, in this sense, more of an “engaged” or “activist” field — like environmental studies — than disciplines that aim for objective or scientific knowledge of the world.
(I’ll put copies of the tables of contents of a few introductory cultural studies textbooks on Blackboard, so that you can get a sense of the divergence and unity of the field.)
… after 1968
The theme for this week is “Cultural studies (and politics) after 1968” because 1968 is generally considered — on the Left, at least — to have been a watershed year in social change movements. It was a year of assassinations (of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy), confrontations (such as the bloody confrontation between police and anti-Vietnam War protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago), massive strikes and shutdowns (such as students shutting down New York City’s Columbia University), and revolutions, some successful, most (ultimately) failed.
Perhaps the most prominent “revolutionary” event was the national strike by students and trade unionists in France, which led to a 6-week national crisis that included the takeover of factories and schools, the shut down (and sometimes takeover) of railways and communications media, and street fights throughout Paris leading to the temporary “liberation” of parts of the city. Prominent French intellectuals and artists were involved in the “events of May-June,” and several emerged as leading social theorists in the years following.
A Columbia University students’ group pamphlet in support of the French “revolution”
Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, the “Prague Spring” was a months-long experiment in creating a “socialism with a human face,” that ended suddenly with the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet tanks. Analogous events — protests, insurrections, disturbances, and so on — if on a smaller scale, happened in many other countries in both the developed and developing worlds.
1968 is often taken as a stand-in for a series of social struggles: against the Vietnam War and, by extension, against perceived imperialism and colonialism of all kinds (around the world); for the civil rights of Blacks in the U.S. (culminating in King’s murder and in the emergence of the Black Panthers), for women’s rights, for gay rights (though the Stonewall riots occurred only a year later), and for environmental causes (though the first Earth Day demonstrations occurred only in 1970).
For political and cultural theorists, 1968 would become a year in which ideas were tried out — and largely failed to create the change they had sought, or that succeeded on a small scape but were either crushed by the authorities or (essentially) voted out on a larger scale. (For instance, Richard Nixon won the U.S. elections that year.) “1968” is in this sense the beginning of a series of reflections on the very possibility of radical social change.
Reading for this week
This week we begin reading Jeremy Gilbert’s Anticapitalism and Culture: Radical Theory and Popular Politics (Berg, 2008). There are sections I’d like you to focus on, and others you can skim or leave out altogether, as follows.
Read all of it.
Read pp. 11-14 to get a sense of the British context within which cultural studies emerged. Then read pp. 14-27 closely; and pp. 30 to the end. (“The Structuralist Turn” can be skimmed or skipped.)
Read pp. 44-49 (starting from the last paragraph on p. 49), then pp. 59-62 (to halfway down that page), and finally pp. 68 (bottom paragraph) through to the end of the chapter.
About the author: Jeremy Gilbert is a Reader (the British equivalent of Professor) in the School of Arts and Digital Industries at the University of East London, U.K. He has long been active in the cultural studies field and as a cultural and political activist. He is also the editor of the journal New Formations, which is a leading British cultural theory/studies journal.
Gilbert’s perspective on what he writes about is an engaged participant’s perspective: he comes out of the tradition of the New Left (defined below). But the larger societal processes which he describes are important for us to understand from multiple perspectives, which we will try to do.
If Gilbert’s is the first book of post-1960s cultural and political theory that you’re reading, you will likely find a lot of terms that need defining. Some of them he provides good definitions for (I’ll indicate those in my further comments); others I’ll define here (preliminarily) or we’ll deal with as we go along. Definitions will be added on a separate page entitled “Glossary.”
Assignment for this week
Do the readings; we will discuss them in class. There is no required blog entry this week, but the following week’s will be expected to address the first 4 chapters of the Gilbert book.
The critical analysis proposals are due by next Tuesday’s class. Instructions are here.