English departments, since their inception in the second half of the 19th century in universities across the world, have focused on the study, practice and teaching of texts of literary value, primarily written by and for people of Britain and America. English language embraced its present status as “the global language” only after colonialism and the reconciliation and acceptance by the erstwhile colonised nations.
Until the 1950s, English studies concentrated solely on literature that was written by established British and American authors; “native” writing was considered as “high” literature. Genres like poetry, drama, fiction and prose reigned supreme while sub-genres like popular literature and English writings from Commonwealth nations were given a cursory overview. Although movements during and after the World Wars brought about changes in social outlooks and ideologies, like Feminism, Marxism, Postmodernism etc, academic purists considered the influence and development of such genres as inferior compared to the 18th and 19th century Classics.
It was during this period that Marxism reared its head and grew into the massive force of Communism that challenged the social and economic bias in society. Karl Marx and his fellow thinkers strived to bring about a balance and equality between the dominant upper class and the underprivileged working class.
Deriving inspiration from the Marxian belief in an egalitarian society, German philosophers Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer spearheaded the formation of the Frankfurt School of literary criticism. They aimed to look at the effect and diabolical intentions of mass-produced culture. They declared that consumerism and Capitalism created a fake necessity for leisure and entertainment in the minds of the masses. Expendable money and time (by-products of automation and industrialisation) prompted people to become the unwitting victims of dominant perspectives. Their views were in sync with those of the Italian theoretician Antonio Gramsci who investigated the powers of “hegemony”. He researched about how the privileged upper-class elite exploited mass media to subordinate the masses and consistently dupe the working class to perpetrate their own hegemonic power.
Writhing free from the stifling restrictions of the English Studies canon, some academicians in England, like Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart formed the Birmingham School and established the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in 1962. Although Horkheimer had laid the founding stone for the academic discipline of Culture Studies with his book The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the Frankfurt School and CCCS had some key differences in their study and approach towards culture.
The Frankfurt School contrasted mass-produced popular culture with avant-garde “high” culture texts. The birmingham School wasn’t concerned about avant-garde material; instead they focussed on the in-depth analysis of media texts and sub-cultures, and researched on how they can be used as tools to resist Capitalist control. Marxian ideologies triggered a political inclination to examine the hidden agendas within mass-culture amongst the Frankfurtians. Resistance to the rigid rule of Margaret Thatcher and the effect of subordination on white working class youth were the main concerns of the Birminghamians. While the former considered audiences as passive receivers of mass-culture, the latter probed ways in which the crushing effect of popular culture could be subverted and used as a weapon against the psychological manipulation.
Culture Studies includes the interdisciplinary study and analysis of topics ranging from literature, new media, TV, advertisement, film, race, gender, history, politics etc. The range and variety within the schema of Culture Studies is virtually infinite. It is a dynamic domain that resists definite theoretical notions and rules. It revels in the flexible margins and options unique to a canon that constantly reinvents itself. Unlike the earlier theories of New-historicism or Existentialism, Culture Studies defies drawing boundaries and affixing a permanent definition to itself.
The crucial aim of Culture Studies is to probe into the existing culture and mass-media, and uncover the hidden meanings, if any, to influence the masses. For instance, all advertisements target the pleasure-seeking human instinct to part with one’s time, money and/or effort for gains that are not really essential for one’s survival. It could be commercialised spirituality, romantic consumerism in the form of tourism offers or the craving for gourmet food and latest fashion trends.
Culture Studies addresses issues of Semiotics in mass culture, taking a leaf out of the work done by Roland Barthes, who believes that anything and everything man-made are signs and symbols with their own innate meanings. It could be a newspaper article, a song, a car or a dress. Oftentimes, we tend to overlook these connotations of everyday objects. For instance, if a person drives a BMW, it sends out the message, “Look, I am rich and successful!”. Overpricing a pink scooter over an exact model in black points at the sales tactics of increasing prices for commodities targeting women customers.
Culture Studies also endeavours to give voice and representation to the marginalised and underprivileged. It includes studies on racial oppression and gender stereotyping. The American feminist Judith Butler is a vociferous advocate of women’s rights and Gayatri Spivak has enriched the canon with her strong views on the “subaltern”. Culture studies, now deviating from its initial distaste and mistrust of popular culture, is now wholeheartedly analysing its production, consumption and motives.
The transformation of English departments into an interdisciplinary Culture Studies department would involve some major changes in attitudes and upgradation of skills and technology. The academicians should broaden their vision to incorporate a flexible and continuous remodelling of existing theories and teaching methodologies, in accordance with the current cultural milieu. Rather than researching arcane topics like Classics or Linguistics, they should consider how contemporary cultural forces prompt a fresh approach to the existing canon and evolving ideas. Technology should be accepted as an essential tool to further pedagogical pursuits; thereby enlarging the scope to understand not just the written text but also new media and cyberspace. Instead of relying exclusively on literature scholars and language experts, the department should open its doors to welcome historians, journalists, popular fiction writers and computer professionals into their midst.
Let me conclude by giving an example of the versatile nature of Culture Studies and how it offers multiple ways in which a cultural product can be analysed. For instance, the movie Titanic can be analysed by a feminist critic as the triumph of female independence and identity. A marxian thinker might regard the ship as a microcosm that depicts societal bias between upper class elite and the proletariat. A dance scholar would comment on the contrasts between ballroom dance and the traditional Irish tap dance in the movie. A food critic would comment on the elaborate dinners presented in the movie and the choice of wine and food portrayed during different occasions. The truth is that all these disparate conjectures and viewpoints would be acceptable in Cultural Studies, while there would certainly be limitations when it comes to an analysis done within English Studies. Cultural Studies is all-encompassing in nature, while English Studies is restricting.