Part of what I want to do on this site is explore Popular Culture using a variety of complimentary or contrasting ideas. Some I’ve drawn from sociology, some from psychology, some from philosophy, and some from the closely related fields of Literary theory and Cultural Studies. This section deals with the theoretical ideas underpinning the latter, and some of the more interesting and influential examples.
Among the more useful tools Cultural Studies has employed is ethnography, or field study, of audiences and other social groups. Ethnography is borrowed from the related field of anthropology and often involves both observation and, frequently, participation. The more acute observers are aware of the way their observations can influence the observed, and even sometimes sensitive to the fact that their object of study is largely defined by their own discursive practices. When Matt Hills looks at Fan Cultures, for instance, he is aware of the fact ‘fandom’ is not a concrete ‘object’ but something contested by self-defining fans themselves.
You’ll probably gather that I have a rather ambiguous relationship with Cultural Studies.
On the one hand Cultural Studies dares take Popular Culture seriously; that, in itself, makes it a field of interest. It also brings to the study of Popular Culture theories of language, psychology and ideology – and it’s difficult to see how understanding of Popular Culture could proceed without some knowledge of those fields.
On the other hand the specific theories of linguistics, psychology and ideology you find in Cultural Studies are often hopelessly outdated, woefully inadequate, or even downright fraudulent. You can’t build a serious academic discipline on rotten foundations so it is necessary to tear them out before laying something more substantial.
Cultural Studies makes great claims to radicalism but is often profoundly conservative in it’s resistance to new ideas. Take linguistics, for instance: Cultural Studies largely takes its theory of linguistics from Ferdinand de Saussure, who’s theories are almost universally regarded as of historical significance only within the field. Saussure’s theories are paraded as if they were the cutting edge of linguistics – and even where Saussure is not explicitly cited you’ll still find theories resting on Saussurian notions such as the distinction between the signifier and the signified. Try looking those up in a modern linguistics book and they barely rate a mention; conversely, try finding a serious discussion of Noam Chomsky and transformational grammar in a Cultural Studies book and you’ll generally find nothing. Problems with Saussure is my attempt to outline what is wrong, both with Saussure’s theories, and with the way they have been appropriated by Cultural Studies, and to suggest ways in which current understandings of linguistics might be more useful in the study of Popular Culture.
Similarly, the psychological theories that Cultural Studies often rests upon are just basically cranky: Freud‘s psychoanalyis and Jacques Lacan‘s even barmier ‘Post-Saussurian’ reformulations of Freud are generally taken as a given. Again, look in a modern psychology text book or ask someone who actually works in the field and you’ll find that psychoanalysis is little more than a footnote – and not a positive one at that. For this reason my essay on Freud – The Greatest Intellectual Fraud in the History of Psychology – is bracketed under Cultural Studies rather than Psychology as psychoanalysis simply does not merit inclusion under the heading of a genuine science.
My essay on Lacan further discusses the inadequace of psychoanalysis where it is compounded by synthesis with Saussurian linguistics and why I think a more cognitive approach would be far more productive. Yet more criticism of psychoanalysis is made in my Film Studies essays on Noël Carroll’s Mystifying Movies and Laura Mulvey’s Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, while a more detailed outline of the cognitive approach is outlined in my essay on David Bordwell’s Making Meaning.
There’s a degree of intellectual cowardice in much of Cultural Studies where critics interrogate Popular Culture and its consumers with a scrutiny verging on that of the Inquisition but leave the theories and assumptions of their Patriarchs unexamined. Maybe it’s because I’m a dabbler and not a professional but I don’t feel bound by this tradition at all: if no baby is present I don’t feel obliged to retain the bath water. Saussure’s theories are outdated, Marx had a very partial understanding of history and economics – if a better understanding of ideology than Louis Althusser – which authorised authoritarian interventions, Freud was a quack who set psychology back a century, and Lacan and Mulvey wrote utter, irredeemable crap.
This section also celebrates Cultural Studies more useful practices – such as ethnography – and discussed the ideas I find useful in the analysis of Popular Culture.
Bordwell, David (1989) Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema
Carroll, Noël (1988) Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory
Hills, Matt (2002) Fan Cultures
Mulvey, Laura (1975) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in Mulvey, L. (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures
*Red denotes link to online versions. There, saved you some money!