Cultural Studies

Arising from the social turmoil of the 1960-s, Cultural Studies is an academic discipline which combines political economy, communication, sociology, social theory, literary theory, media theory, film studies, cultural anthropology, philosophy, art history/ criticism etc. to study cultural phenomena in various societies. Cultural Studies researches often focus on how a particular phenomenon relates matters of ideology, nationality, ethnicity, social class and gender.

Discussion on Cultural Studies have gained currency with the publication of Richard Hoggart‘s Use of Literacy (1957) and Raymond Williams Culture and Society (1958), and with the establishment of Birmingham Centre for is Contemporary Cultural Studies in England in 1968.

Since culture is now considered as the source of art and literature, cultural criticism has gained ground, and therefore, Raymond Williams’ term “cultural  materialism”, Stephen Greenblatt‘s “cultural poetics” and Bakhtin‘s term “cultural prosaic”, have become significant in the field of Cultural Studies and cultural criticism.

The works of Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart with the Birmingham Centre, later expanded through the writings of David Morley, Tony Bennett and others. Cultural Studies is interested in the process by which power relations organize cultural artefacts (food habits, music, cinema, sport events etc.). It looks at popular culture and everyday life, which had hitherto been dismissed as “inferior” and unworthy of academic study. Cultural Studies’ approaches 1) transcend the confines of a particular discipline such as literary criticism or history 2) are politically engaged 3) reject the distinction between “high” and “low” art or “elite” and “popular” culture 4) analyse not only the cultural works but also the means of production.

In order to understand the changing political circumstances  of class, politics and culture in the UK, scholars at the CCCS turned to the work of Antonio Gramsci who modified classical Marxism in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control. In his view, capitalists are not only brute force (police, prison, military) to maintain control, but also penetrate the everyday culture of working people. Thus the key rubric for Gramsci and for cultural studies is that of cultural hegemony. Edgar and Sedgwick point out that the theory of hegemony was pivotal to the development of British Cultural Studies. It facilitated analysis of the ways in which subaltern groups actively resist and respond to political and economic domination.

The approach of Raymond Williams and CCCS was clearly marxIst and poststructuralist, and held subject identities and relationships as textual, constructed out of discourse. Cultural Studies believes that we cannot “read” cultural artefacts only within the aesthetic realm, rather they must be studied within the social and material perspectives; i.e., a novel must be read not only within the generic conventions and history of the novel, but also in terms of the publishing industry and its profit, its reviewers, its academic field of criticism, the politics of awards and the hype of publicity machinery that sells the book. Cultural Studies regards the cultural artefact like the tricolour or Gandhi Jayanti as a political sign, that is part of the “disourse” of India, as reinforcing certain ideological values, and concealing oppressive conditions of patriarchal ideas of the nation, nationalism and national identity.

2014-books-1024x573In Cultural Studies, representation is a key concept and denotes a language in which all objects and relationships get defined, a language related to issues of class, power and ideology, and situated within the context of “discourse”. The cultural practice of giving dolls to girls can be read within the patriarchal discourse of femininity that girls are weaker and delicate and need to be given soft things, and that grooming, care etc. are feminine duties which dolls will help them learn. This discourse of femininity is itself related to the discourse of masculinity and the larger context of power relations in culture. Identity, for Culture Studies, is constituted through experience, which involves representation – the consumption of signs, the making of meaning from signs and the knowledge of meaning.

Cultural Studies views everyday life as fragmented, multiple, where meanings are hybridized and contested; i.e., identities that were more or less homogeneous in terms of ethnicities and patterns of consumption, are now completely hybrid, especially in the metropolis. With the globalization of urban spaces, local cultures are linked to global economies, markets and needs, and hence any study of contemporary culture has to examine the role of a non-local market/ money which requires a postcolonial awareness of the exploitative relationship between the First World and the Third World even today.

Cultural Studies is interested in lifestyle because lifestyle 1) is about everyday life 2) defines identity 3) influences social relations 4) bestows meaning and value to artefacts in a culture. In India, after economic liberalization, consumption has been seen as a marker of identity. Commodities are signs of identity and lifestyle and consumption begins before the actual act of shopping; it begins with the consumption of the signs of the commodity.

Mall Culture

Mall is a space of display where goods are displayed for maximum visual display in such a fashion that they are attractive enough to instill desire. Spectacle, attention- holding and desire are central elements of shopping experience in the mall. Hence mall emerges primarily as a site of gazing and secondarily as a site of shopping. The mall presents a spectacle of a fantasy world created by the presence of models and posters, compounded by the experience of being surrounded by attractive men and women, cosy families and vibrant youth — which altogether entice us to unleash the possibilities of donning a better identity, by trying out / consuming global brands and cosmopolitan fashion.

The mall invites for participating in the fantasy of future possibilities. Thus, the spectacle turns into a performance that the customer/ consumer imitates and participates in. It is also a theatrical performance that is  interactive, in which the spectacle comes alive with the potential consumer. The encircling vistas, long-spread balconies and viewing points at every floor add to the spectacle, by providing a “prospect” of shopping.

Eclecticism is yet another feature of the mall, where, “the world is under one roof”- where a “Kalanjali” or “Mann Mantra” share space with “Shoppers Stop” or “Life Style” and “Madras Mail” shares space with “McDonald’s” and multiplexes, imparting a cosmopolitan experience. Thus eclecticism and a mixing of products, styles and traditions are a central feature of the mall and consumer experience.

Further, “the mall is a hyperreal, ahistorical, secure, postmodern-secular, uniform space of escape that takes the streets of the city into itself in a tightly controlled environment where time, weather, season do not matter where the “natural” is made through artificial lighting and horticulture, and ensuring that this public space resembles the city but offers more security and choice”

Media Culture

Media studies and its role in the construction of cultural values, circulation of symbolic values, and its production of desire are central to Cultural Studies today. Cultural Studies of the media begins with the assumption that media culture is political and ideological, and it reproduces existing social values, oppression and inequalities. Media culture clearly reflects the multiple sides of contemporary debates and problems. Media culture helps to reinforce the hegemony and power of specific economic, cultural and political groups by suggesting ideologies that the audience, if not alert, imbibes. Media culture is also provocative because it sometimes asks us to rethink what we know or believe in. In Cultural Studies, media culture is studied through an analysis of popular media culture like films, TV serials, advertisements etc.- as Cultural Studies believes in the power of the popular cultural forms as tools of ideological and political power.

Cultural Studies of popular media culture involves an analysis of the forms of representation, such as film; the political ideology of these representations; an examination of the financial sources/sponsors of these representations (propaganda advertisements by Coke after the report on pesticides in Coca Cola); an examination of the roles played by other objects / people in the propagating ideology (Amir Khan in the Coca Cola ad, after patriotic films like Lagaan, Mangal Pandey and Rang de Basanti). Culturat in Studies also analyses whether the medium (say, film), presents an oppressive/unequal nature of institutions, like family; education etc. or glorify them; the possible resistance to such oppressive ideologies; the audience’s response to such representation and the economic benefits and the beneficiaries of such representations.

Contemporary Culture Studies of media culture explores what is called “media ecologies“, the environment of human culture created by the intersection of information and communications technologies, organizational behaviour and human interaction.

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