Cultural Studies developed initially in Britain. The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Study (CCCS), the first of its kind, was established in 1964 at the University of Birmingham. The birth of cultural studies marked a movement which took a very different view of culture than the traditional one, which is based on the literary canon, and regarded culture as a socially informed construct rather than purely the expression of an individual great mind. The distinction between high and low culture became irrelevant. Raymond Williams, generally considered to be the godfather of this movement, has been seminal in seeing culture as a process as well as ‘concrete lived experience’, and in analyzing cultural products in relation to the institutions and social structures which produced them (Williams, 1961).
British Cultural Studies changed the way that people think about, study, and teach culture, but as the approach developed beyond Britain, different interpretations underpinned by different theories emerged. Much of British Cultural Studies was initially informed by a Marxist agenda, centering around issues such as power relations, particularly those determined by social class. Later academics, such as Stuart Hall extended the notion of inequality in society to incorporate areas of ethnicity and gender. An important moment in cultural studies was the adoption of Gramsci’s (1971) notion of ‘hegemony’, which views the cultural domination of a particular group as being achieved through persuasion or consent. Submission to the dominant ideas is then partly a consensual undertaking. People submit to dominant views because these views have developed a taken-for-granted perspective. Power is then exercised not so much by a dominant group or ruling class imposing its will on other groups or people, but instead, power is the legitimization of certain ideas in becoming the norm. As Van Dijk (1993) states, we speak of hegemony when subtle forms of ‘dominance’ seem to be so persistent that it seems natural and it is accepted that those that are dominated act in the interest of the powerful. Behind this principle of hegemony, as Wallace points out (2003: 30), is the view that people, in general, are not aware of the operation of power, especially as embedded in language. The idea that language practices and conventions are invested with power relations of which people are unaware, is also the focus of a strand of language pedagogy, Critical Language Awareness, which I will discuss later on in this chapter.
The issues in cultural studies are wide and varied but a consensus concerns the extent to which, and the processes through which, cultural meanings are made and accepted, and are imposed upon or resisted by us. The central questions are therefore to do with ideology and power. The notion of ideology which is used in cultural studies is a complex one. The concept of ‘ideology’ is often traced back to a Marxist view which pertains to ideas of economic and cultural domination of the ruling class over the working class. As Wetherell (2001: 286) says, ‘Marxist work on ideology was concerned with testing ideas and statements for their truth value, or their accordance with reality’. However, this early view of ideology has become superseded in cultural studies by other views which are based on notions of reality, which are more complex and subtle.
Stuart Hall (1983) uses the term ‘ideology’ to refer to a framework of ideas and concepts to make sense of the world. This view of ideology as a belief system is the one which is used most frequently in the ‘common sense’ understanding of the term. The notion of ‘ideas’ as encompassing a belief system is, I think, given more subtlety through the concept of ‘discourses’ as used by Foucault, which explains how ways of thinking about a particular topic or slice of the cultural or social world can become so dominant that it ‘infiltrates’ people’s mind and takes on the aura of ‘truth’.
What thus becomes relevant for the study is not just what products or practices are part of a particular way of life, but rather the meanings attributed to them. Quite how we interpret cultural products and practices, whether we see them as forms of self-expression or socially enforced meanings, as acts of resistance or incorporation, depends on the theoretical paradigm and underlying epistemology from which we approach the texts we study.
Interpreting texts then is not just a matter of seeing how meaning is encoded, but it is a process of constructing the meaning of signs which must take account of the wider context in which the texts are produced and in which they are read and received, or how they are ‘articulated’ (Stuart Hall, 1985). Meaning is thus not fixed, as different meanings can be ascribed dependent on the position from which we approach the sign. Different people, in different contexts, with different ideological backgrounds and different individual histories, will interpret texts in different ways. The importance of looking at signs not merely from the viewpoint of text production but also of text reception is central to many contemporary cultural studies practices. One of the key issues in this respect is the notion of intertextuality. As Maaike Meijer (1996) argues, this goes beyond traceable references to other texts and should be interpreted in its widest sense as the whole of the social and cultural climate and conventions. The reader constructs the meaning of the texts through his/her knowledge of and experience with other texts and a whole network of conventions and discourses. In this way, a text becomes what Meijer calls a ‘cultuurtekst’, a network of accepted ways of talking about a particular theme. Seeing a text as ‘cultuurtekst’ necessitates looking at the cultural and social environment in which the text is produced. The intertexts also provide a wider context through the other cultural phenomena and practices to which the text refers and the discourses on which it draws. Intertexts provide the cohesive structure through which text and context can be studied in relation to one another.
Culture in Cultural Studies is not an aesthetic view of culture, but an anthropological one. This, as Risager (2006: 49) says, is an extension of Geertz’ interpretative view of culture as a system of meanings. Whereas for Geertz, she explains, an already existing meaning needs to be ‘unearthed’ from texts or practices, in a Cultural Studies approach the emphasis is on the creation, recreation, and the attribution of meaning as part of a process of people in interaction or ‘dialogue’. This, as well as the notion of ‘cultuurtekst’, are key aspects in my own pedagogy which I will discuss further in Chapters 3 and 4.