WHAT IS CULTURAL CRITICISM ?

by Ross C. Murfin

What do you think of when you think of culture? The opera or
ballet? A performance of a Mozart symphony at Lincoln Center, or a
Rembrandt show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Does the
phrase "cultural event" conjure up images of young people in jeans
and T-shirts or of people in their sixties dressed formally.  Most people
hear "culture" and think "High Culture."  Consequently, most people,
when they first hear of cultural cnticism, assume it would be more for-
mal than, well, say, formalism.  They suspect it would be "highbrow,"
in both subject and style.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, one of the goals
of cultural criticism is to oppose Culture with a capital C, in other
words, that view of culture which always and only equates it with what
we sometimes call "high culture." Cultural critics want to make the
term culture refer to popular culture as well as to that culture we asso-
ciate with the so-called classics. Cultural critics are as likely to write
about Star Trek as they are to analyze James Joyce's Ulysses. They want
to break down the boundary between high and low, and to dismantle
the hierarchy that the distinction implies. They also want to discover
the (often political) reasons why a certain kind of aesthetic product is
more valued than others.

A cultural critic writing on a revered classic might concentrate on a
movie or even comic strip version. Or she might see it in light of some
more common form of reading material (a novel by Jane Austen might
be viewed in light of Gothic romances or ladies' conduct manuals), as
the reflection of some common cultural myths or concerns (Huckle-
berry Finn might be shown to reflect and shape American myths about
race, concerns about juvenile delinquency), or as an example of how
texts move back and forth across the alleged boundary between "low"
and "high" culture. A history play by Shakespeare, as one group of
cultural critics has pointed out, may have started off as a popular work
enjoyed by working people, later become a "highbrow" play enjoyed
only by the privileged and educated, and, still later, due to a film ver-
sion produced during World War II, become popular again--this time
because it has been produced and viewed as a patriotic statement
about England's greatness during wartime (Humm 6-7). More re-
cently, cultural critics have analyzed the "cultural work" being done
cooperatively by Mel Gibson and Shakespeare in France Zeffirelli's
movie Hamlet.

In combating old definitions of what constitutes culture, of course,
cultural critics sometimes end up combating old definitions of what
constitutes the literary canon, that is, the once-agreed-upon honor roll
of Great Books. They tend to do so, however, neither by adding books
(and movies and television sitcoms) to the old list of texts that every
"culturally literate" person should supposedly know, nor by substitut-
ing for it some kind of Counterculture Canon. Rather, they tend to
combat the canon by critiquing the very idea of canon. Cultural critics
want to get us away from thinking about certain works as the "best"
ones produced by a given culture (and therefore as the novels that best
represent a given culture). They seek to be more descriptive and less
evaluative, more interested in relating than rating cultural products
and events.

It is not surprising, then, that in an article on "The Need for Cul-
tural Studies," four groundbreaking cultural critics have written that
"Cultural Studies should ... abandon the goal of giving students ac-
cess to that which represents a culture." Instead, these critics go on to
argue, it should show works in reference to other works, economic
contexts, or broad social discourses (about childbirth, women's educa-
tion, rural decay, etc.) within whose contexts the work makes sense.
Perhaps most important, critics doing cultural studies should counter
the prevalent notion that culture is some wholeness that has already
been formed. Culture, rather, is really a set of interactive cultures, alive
and growing and changing, and cultural critics should be present- and
even future-oriented. Cultural critics should be "resisting intellectu-
als," and cultural studies should be "an emancipatory project" (Giroux
478-80).

The paragraphs above are peppered with words like oppose, counter,
deny, resist, combat, abandon, and emancipatory. What such words sug-
gest--and quite accurately--is that a number of cultural critics view
themselves in political, even oppositional, terms. Not only are cultural
critics likely to take on the literary canon while offering political read-
ings of popular films, but they are also likely to take on the institution
of the university, for that is where the old definitions of culture as
High Culture (and as something formed and finished and canonized)
have been most vigorously preserved, defended, and reinforced.

Cultural critics have been especially critical of the departmental
structure of universities, for that structure, perhaps more than any-
thing else, has kept the study of the "arts" more or less distinct from
the study of history, not to mention from the study of such things as
television, film, advertising, journalism, popular photography, folklore,
current affairs, shoptalk, and gossip. By doing so, the departmental
structure of universities has reasserted the high/low culture distinc-
tion, implying that all the latter subjects are best left to historians, soci-
ologists, anthropologists, linguists, and communication theorists. But
such a suggestion, cultural critics would argue, keeps us from seeing
the aesthetics of an advertisement as well as the propagandistic ele-
ments of a work of literature. For these reasons, cultural critics have
mixed and matched the most revealing analytical procedures devel-
oped in a variety of disciplines, unabashedly jettisoning the rest. For
these reasons, too, they have formed--and encouraged other scholars
to form--networks other than and outside of those enforced depart-
mentally.

Some initially loose interdisciplinary networks have, over time, so-
lidified to become Cultural Studies programs and majors, complete
with courses on comics and surveys of soaps. As this has happened, a
significant if subtle danger has arisen. Cultural critics, Richard Johnson
has warned, must strive diligently to keep cultural studies from becom-
ing a discipline unto itself--one in which students encounter cartoons
as a canon and belief in the importance of such popular forms as an
"orthodoxy" (39). The only principles that critics doing cultural stud-
ies can doctrinally espouse, Johnson suggests, are the two that have
thus far been introduced: namely, the principle that "culture" has been
an "inegalitarian" concept, a "tool" of "condescension," and the belief
that a new, "interdisciplinary (and sometimes antidisciplinary)" ap-
proach to true culture (that is, to the forms in which culture actually
lives now) is required now that history and art and media are so com-
plex and interrelated (42).

Johnson, ironically, played a major part in the institutionalization
of cultural studies. Together with Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart, he
developed the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, founded by
Hoggart and Hall at Birmingham University, in England, in 1964.
The fact that the Centre was founded in the mid-1960s is hardly sur-
prising; cultural criticism, based as it is on a critique of elitist defini-
tions of culture, spoke powerfully to and gained great energy and sup-
port from a decade of student unrest and revolt. The fact that the first
center for cultural studies was founded in England, in Europe, is
equally unsurprising. Although the United States has probably con-
tributed more than any other nation to the media through which cul-
ture currently lives, critics in Europe, drawing upon the ideas of both
Marxist and non-Marxist theorists, first articulated the need for some-
thing like what we now call cultural criticism or cultural studies. In-
deed, to this day, European critics are more involved than Americans,
not only in the analysis of popular cultural forms and products but also
in the analysis of human subjectivity or consciousness as a form or
product of culture. ("Subjectivities," Johnson argues, are "produced,
not given, and are . . .  objects of inquiry" inevitably related to "social
practices," whether those involve factory rules, supermarket behavior
patterns, reading habits, advertisements watched, myths perpetrated,
or languages and other signs to which people are exposed [44-451.)

Among the early continental critics now seen as forerunners of
present-day cultural critics were those belonging to the Annales
school, so-called because of the name of the journal that Mare Bloch
and Lucien Febvre launched, in France, in 1929: Annales: Economies,
Societies, Civilisations. The Annales school critics greatly influenced
later thinkers like Michel Foucault, who, in turn, influenced other An-
nales thinkers such as Roger Chartier, Jacques Ravel, Francois Furet,
and Robert Darnton. Both first- and second-generation Annales
school critics warn against the development of "topics" of study by
cultural critics--unless those same critics are bent on "developing . . .
[a] sense of cohesion or interaction between topics  (Hunt 9). At the
same time, interested as they are in cohesion, Annales school critics
have warned against seeing the "rituals and other forms of symbolic
action" as "express[ing] a central, coherent, communal meaning."
They have reminded us that texts affect different readers "in varying
and individual ways" (Hunt 13-14).

Michel Foucault is another strong, continental influence on present-
day cultural criticism--and perhaps the strongest influence on Ameri-
can cultural criticism and the so-called new historicism, an interdisci-
plinary form of historical criticism whose evolution has often paralleled
that of cultural criticism. Influenced by early  Annales critics and con-
temporary Marxists (but neither an Annales critic nor a Marxist him-
self), Foucault sought to study cultures in terms of power relation-
ships. Unlike Marxists and some Annales school critics, he refused to
see power as something exercised by a dominant over a subservient
class. Indeed, he emphasized that power is not just repressive power: a
tool of conspiracy by one individual or institution against another.
Power, rather, is a whole complex of forces; it is that which produces
what happens.

Thus even a tyrannical aristocrat does not simply wield power, for
he is empowered by "discourses"--accepted ways of thinking, writing,
and speaking--and practices that amount to power. Foucault tried to
view all things, from punishment to sexuality, in terms of the widest
possible variety of discourses. As a result, he traced the "genealogy" of
topics he studied through texts that more traditional historians and lit-
erary critics would have overlooked, looking at (in Lynn Hunt's
words) "memoirs of deviants, diaries, political treatises, architectural
blueprints, court records, doctors' reports-appl[ying] consistent
principles of analysis in search of moments of reversal in discourse, in
search of events as loci of the conflict where social practices were trans-
formed" (Hunt 39). Foucault tended not only to build interdiscipli-
nary bridges but also, in the process, to bring into the study of culture
the "histories of women, homosexuals, and minorities"--groups sel-
dom studied by those interested in culture with a capital C (Hunt 45).

Of the British influences on cultural studies and criticism as it is
today, several have already been mentioned. Of those who have not,
two early forerunners stand out. One of these, the Marxist critic E. P.
Thompson, revolutionized study of the industrial revolution by writ-
ing about its impact on human attitudes, even consciousness. He
showed how a shared cultural view, specifically that of what constitutes
a fair or just price, influenced crowd behavior and caused such things
as the food riots and rick burnings of the nineteenth century. The
other, even greater, early British influence on contemporary cultural
criticism and cultural studies was the late Raymond Williams. In works
like The Long Revolution and Culture and Society, 1780-1950, Williams
demonstrated that culture is not a fixed and finished but, rather, a liv-
ing and changing thing. One of the changes he called for was the de-
velopment of a common socialist culture.

Like Marxists, with whom he often both argued and sympathized,
Williams viewed culture in relation to ideologies, what he termed the
"residual," "dominant," or "emerging" ways of viewing the world
held by classes or individuals holding power in a given social group.
But unlike Thompson and Richard Hoggart, he avoided emphasizing
social classes and class conflict in discussing those forces most power-
fully shaping and changing culture. And, unlike certain continental
Marxists, he could never see the cultural "superstructure" as being a
more or less simple "reflection" of the economic "base." Williams's
tendency was to focus on people as people, on how they experience
conditions they find themselves in and creatively respond to those con-
ditions in their social practices. A believer in the resiliency of the indi-
vidual, he produced a body of criticism notable for what Hall has
called its "humanism" (63).

As is clear from the paragraphs above, the emergence and evolu-
tion of cultural studies or criticism are difficult to separate entirely
from the development of Marxist thought. Marxism is, in a sense, the
background to the background of most cultural criticism, and some
contemporary cultural critics consider themselves Marxist critics as
well. Thus, some mention of Marxist ideas--and of the critics who de-
veloped them--is necessary here. Of particular importance to the evo-
lution of cultural criticism are the works of Walter Benjamin, Antonio
Gramsci, Louis Althusser, and Mikhail Bakhtin.

Bakhtin was a Russian, later a Soviet, critic so original in his think-
ing and wide-ranging in his influence that some would say he was
never a Marxist at all. He viewed language--especially literary texts--
in terms of discourses and dialogues between discourses. Within a novel
written in a society in flux, for instance, the narrative may include an
official, legitimate discourse, plus another infiltrated by challenging
comments and even retorts. In a 1929 book on Dostoyevsky and a
1940 study Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin examined what he calls
"polyphonic" novels, each characterized by a multiplicity of voices or
discourses. In Dostoyevsky the independent status of a given character
is marked by the difference of his or her language from that of the narrator.
(The narrator's voice, too, can in fact be a dialogue.) In works
by Rabelais, Bakhtin finds that the (profane) language of the carnival
and of other popular festivities play against and parody the more offi-
cial discourses, that is, of the magistrates or the Church. Bakhtin influ-
enced modern cultural criticism by showing, in a sense, that the con-
flict between "high" and "low" culture takes place not only between
classic and popular texts but also between the "dialogic" voices that
exist within all great books.

Walter Benjamin was a German Marxist who, during roughly the
same period, attacked certain conventional and traditional literary
forms that he felt conveyed a stultifying "aura" of culture. He took
this position in part because so many previous Marxist critics and, in
his own day, Georg Lukacs, had seemed to be stuck on appreciating
nineteenth-century realistic novels--and opposed to the modernist
works of their own time. Benjamin not only praised modernist move-
ments, such as Dadaism, but also saw as hopeful the development of
new art forms utilizing mechanical production and reproduction.
These forms, including radio and films, offered the promise of a new
definition of culture via a broader, less exclusive domain of the arts.

Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist best known for his Prison
Notebooks (first published as Lettere dal carcere in 1947), critiqued the
very concept of literature and, beyond that, of culture in the old sense,
stressing not only the importance of culture more broadly defined but
the need for nurturing and developing proletarian, or working-class,
culture. He suggested the need to view intellectuals politically--and
the need for what he called "radical organic" intellectuals. Today's cul-
tural critics calling for colleagues to "legitimate the notion of writing
reviews and books for the general public," to "become involved in the
political reading of popular culture," and, in general, to "repoliticize ...
scholarship" have often cited Gramsci as an early advocate
of their views (Giroux 482).

Finally, and most importantly, Gramsci related literature to the
ideologies of the culture that produced it and developed the concept
of "hegemony," a term he used to describe the pervasive, weblike sys-
tem of meanings and values--ideologies--that shapes the way things
look, what they mean and, therefore, what reality is for the majority of
people within a culture. Gramsci did not see people, even poor people,
as the helpless victims of hegemony, as ideology's idiotic robots.
Rather, he believed that people have the freedom and power to strug-
gle against ideology, to alter hegemony. As Patrick Brantlinger has
suggested in Crusoe's Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain and
America (1990), Gramsci's thought is unspoiled by the "intellectual
arrogance that views the vast majority of people as deluded zombies,
the victims or creatures of ideology" (100).

Of those Marxists who, after Gramsci, explored the complex rela-
tionship between literature and ideology, the French Marxist Louis Al-
thusser also had a significant impact on cultural criticism. Unlike
Gramsci, Althusser tended to see ideology in control of people, and
not vice versa. He argued that the main function of ideology is to re-
produce the society's existing relations of production, and that that
function is even carried out in most literary texts, although literature is
relatively autonomous from other "social formations."  Dave Laing has
explained Althusser's position by saying that the "ensemble of habits,
moralities, [and] opinions" that can be found in any work of literature
tend to "ensure that the work-force (and those responsible for re-
producing them in the family, school, etc.) are maintained in their po-
sition of subordination to the dominant class" (91).

In many ways, though, Althusser is as good an example of where
Marxism and cultural criticism part ways as he is of where cultural crit-
icism is indebted to Marxists and their ideas. For although Althusser
did argue that literature is relatively autonomous--more independent
of ideology than, say, Church, press, or State--he meant by literature
not just literature in the narrow sense but something even narrower.
He meant Good Literature, certainly not the popular forms that
present-day cultural critics would want to set beside Tolstoy and
Joyce, Eliot and Brecht. Those popular fictions, Althusser assumed,
were mere packhorses designed (however unconsciously) to carry the
baggage of a culture's ideology, mere brood mares destined to reproduce
it.

Thus, while cultural critics have embraced both Althusser's notion
that works of literature reflect certain ideological formations and his
notion that, at the same time, literary works may be relatively distant
from or even resistant to ideology, they have rejected the narrow limits
within which Althusser and other Marxists have defined literature. In
"Marxism and Popular Fiction" (1986), Tony Bennett uses Monty
Python's Flying Circus and another British television show, Not the 9
o'clock News, to argue that the Althusserian notion that all forms of
popular culture are to be included "among [all those] many material
forms which ideology takes . . . under capitalism" is "simply not true."
The "entire field" of "popular fiction"--which Bennett takes to in-
clude films and television shows as well as books--is said to be "re-
plete with instances" of works that do what Bennett calls the "work"
of "distancing." That is, they have the effect of separating the audience
from, not rebinding the audience to, prevailing ideologies (249).

Although there are Marxist cultural critics (Bennett himself is one,
carrying on through his writings what may be described as a lover's
quarrel with Marxism), most cultural critics are not Marxists in any
strict sense. Anne Beezer, in writing about such things as advertise-
ments and women's magazines, contests the "Althusserian view of ide-
ology as the construction of the subject" (qtd. in Punter 103). That is
to say, she gives both the media she is concerned with and their audi-
ences more credit than Althusserian Marxists presumably would.
Whereas they might argue that such media make people what they are,
she points out that the same magazines that may, admittedly, tell
women how to please their men may, at the same time, offer liberating
advice to women about how to preserve their independence by not
getting too serious romantically. And, she suggests, many advertise-
ments advertise their status as ads, just as many people who view or
read them see advertising as advertising and interpret it accordingly.

The complex and subtle sort of analysis that Beezer has brought to
bear on women's magazines and advertisements has been focused on
paperback romance novels by Tania Modleski and Janice Radway, in
Loving with a Vengeance (1982) and Reading the Romance (1984), re-
spectively. Radway, a feminist cultural critic who uses but finally ex-
ceeds Marxist critical discourse, points out that many women who read
romances do so in order to carve out a time and space that is wholly
their own, not to be intruded upon by their husbands or children.
Also, Radway argues, such novels may end in marriage, but the mar-
riage is usually between a feisty and independent heroine and a powerful
man she has "tamed," that is, made sensitive and caring. And why
do so many such stories involve such heroines and end as they do? Be-
cause, Radway demonstrates through painstaking research into pub-
lishing houses, bookstores, and reading communities, their consumers
want them to be that way. They don't buy--or if they buy, they don't
recommend--romances in which, for example, a heroine is raped:
thus, in time, fewer and fewer such plots find their way onto the racks
by the supermarket checkout.

Radway's reading is typical of feminist cultural criticism in that it is
political--but not exclusively about oppression. The subjectivities of
women may be "produced" by romances--that is, their thinking is
governed by what they read--but the same women also govern, to
some extent, what gets written or produced, thus doing "cultural
work" of their own. Rather than seeing all forms of popular culture as
manifestations of ideology, soon to be remanifested in the minds of
victimized audiences, non-Marxist cultural critics tend to see a some-
times disheartening but always dynamic synergy between cultural
forms and the culture's consumers.

Mary Poovey does this in The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer
(1984), a book in which she traces the evolution of female "propri-
ety." Poovey closely connects the proprieties taught by eighteenth-
century women who wrote conduct manuals, ladies' magazines, and
even novels with patriarchal notions of women and men's property.
(Since property was inherited, an unfaithful woman could threaten the
disposition of a man's inheritance by giving birth to children who were
not his. Therefore, writings by women that reinforced proprieties also
shored up the proprietary status quo.) Finally, though, Poovey also
shows that some of the women writers who reinforced proprieties and
were seen as "textbook Proper Ladies" in fact "crossed the borders of
that limited domain" (40). They may have written stories showing the
audacity, for women, of trying to lead an imaginative, let alone auda-
cious, life beyond the bounds of domestic propriety. But they did so
imaginatively and audaciously.

CULTURAL CRITICISM: A SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY

General Introductions to Cultural Criticism, Cultural Studies

Brantlinger, Patrick. Crusoe's Footprints: Cultural Studies in Britain
and America. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Desan, Philippe, Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, and Wendy Griswold.
"Editors' Introduction: Mirrors, Frames, and Demons: Reflections
on the Sociology of Literature." Literature and Social Practice.
Ed. Desan, Ferguson, and Griswold. Chicago: U of Chicago P,
1989. 1-10.

Eagleton, Terry. "Two Approaches in the Sociology of Literature."
Critical Inquiry 14(1988): 469-76.

Giroux, Henry, David Shumway, Paul Smith, and James Sosnoski.
"The Need for Cultural Studies: Resisting Intellectuals and Oppo-
sitional Public Spheres." Dalhousie Review 64.2 (1984): 472-86.

Graff, Gerald, and Bruce Robbins, "Cultural Criticism." Redrawing
the Boundaries. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt and Giles Gunn. New
York: MLA, 1992.

Gunn, Giles. The Culture of Criticism and the Criticism ofCulture.
New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Hall, Stuart. "Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms." Media, Culture and
Society 2 (1980): 57-72.

Humm, Peter, Paul Stigant, and Peter Widdowson, eds. Popular Fic-
tion: Essays in Literature and History. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Hunt, Lynn, ed. The New Cultural History: Essays. Berkeley: U of Cal-
ifornia P, 1989.

Johnson, Richard. "What Is Cultural Studies Anyway?" Social Text:
Theory/Culture/ldeology 16 (1986-87): 38-80.

Pfister, Joel. "The Americanization of Cultural Studies." Yale Journal
of Criticism 4 (1991): 199-229.

Punter, David, ed. Introduction to Contemporary Critical Studies. New
York: Longman, 1986. See especially Punter's "Introduction Cul-
ture and Change" 1-18, Tony Dunn's "The Evolution of Cultural
Studies" 71-91, and the essay "Methods for Cultural Studies Stu-
dents" by Anne Beezer, Jean Grimshaw, and Martin Barker
95-118.

Cultural Studies: Some Early British Examples

Hoggart, Richard. Speaking to Each Other. 2 vols. London: Chatto,
1970.

-----. The Uses of Literacy: Changing Patterns in English Mass Cul-
ture. Boston: Beacon, 1961.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York:
Pantheon, 1977.

-----. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society, 1780-1950. New York:
Harper, 1958.

-----. The Long Revolution. New York: Columbia UP, 1961.

Cultural Studies: Continental and Marxist Influences

Althusser, Louis. For Marx. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York: Pan-
theon, 1969.

Althusser, Louis, and Etienne Balibar. Reading Capital. Trans. Pen
Brewster. New York: Pantheon, 1971.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed.
Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson. Austin: U of Texas P,
1981.

-----. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge: MIT P, 1968.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. with intro. by Hannah Arendt.
Trans. H. Zohn. New York: Harcourt, 1968.

Bennett, Tony. "Marxism and Popular Fiction." Popular Fiction: Es-
says in Literature and History. Ed. Humm, Stigant, and Widdow
son. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans.
Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

-----. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New
York: Random, 1990.

Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. Quintin
Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International,
1971.

Laing, Dave. The Marxist Theory of Art: An Introductory Survey. Boul
der, CO: Westview P, 1986.

Modern Cultural Studies: Selected British and American Examples

Cells, Robert, and Philip Dodd, eds. Englishness: Politics and Culture,
1880-1920. London: Groom Helm, 1986.

Modleski, Tania. Loving with a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies
for Women. Hamden: Archon, 1982.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as
Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane
Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

-----. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-
Victorian England. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popu-
lar Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.