All 2 entries tagged Cultural Studies

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September 11, 2012

This is my 4th favourite blog post

I’ve recently had a new book chapter published –‘ List-culture and literary taste in a time of endless choice’ in From Codex to Hypertext: Reading at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, edited by Anouk Lang of Strathclyde University. The book gathers contributions to a conference in 2008 – Beyond the Book – at which scholars from a range of disciplines, together with librarians and policy makers discussed the new reading practices that are emerging in the light of new technologies and changes to the broader literary landscape.

My chapter reflects on the ‘list’ – a perennial staple of cultural journalism as a mediating ‘technology’ in the judgment of authority and value – and not one that is just confined to the field of reading. A recent example of the kind of phenomenon I was considering is provided by the relegation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from its position as ‘the greatest film ever made’, according to the BFI’s decennial surveyof critics and its replacement with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Vertigo was second in the list in 2002 but not even in the top 10 in the 1972 poll; Citizen Kane has been top since 1962 - but wasn’t even in the top 10 in 1952. Given that neither of these films have changed since their releases - 1941 for Kane and 1958 for Vertigo – how can one now be ‘better’ than the other, after being ‘worse’, sometimes significantly so, for so many years? The answer is of course that the films don’t change, but that cultural value is a dynamic thing. The criteria of judgment of, in this case, serious film critics aren't fixed. Lists of this kind act can, then, act as intriguing indicators of the shifting sands of cultural authority.

In the chapter I explore the relationships between different kinds of authority evident in the ‘great books’ lists of the turn of the twentieth century (produced by writers such as Arnold Bennett in 1909 and John Cowper Powys in 1916), the bestseller chart which rose to prominence with the consolidation of the cultural industries in the mid-twentieth century, the list as popular poll – exemplified by the BBC’s The Big Read initiative - and the most recent iteration of list-culture – the listmania feature of Amazon, through which readers post lists of their favourite books for the benefit of other browsers. These different types of lists share an overriding aim to navigate readers through the abundant choices that the ‘industrial’ production of literature provides them with. The early twentieth century lists were proposed as a kind of practical ‘canon’, guiding readers towards the kinds of books they ought to read and away from those which might be salacious or radical. By the late twentieth century this patrician element of list-culture was less evident, replaced with a more apparently democratic republic of taste in which the authority of ‘serious’ critics competed with the often subtle promotional tools of publishing industry (literary prizes, TV book clubs) in managing readers’ choices. And in the early twenty-first century, on-line lists, complemented by the algorithms of retailers like Amazon, mean that readers can find what they want through like-minded readers (‘customers who bought this also bought…’) without recourse to any obvious ‘authority’ at all.

There are some revealing tensions in this story. Critics of various kinds dismiss popular lists in particular as trivializing or commercializing culture – and there are elements of the list which can re-cast cultural judgment as a crude form of competition. What they also do, though, is open up the kinds of dialogue and debate which John Frow refers to as the ‘circulating energies of culture’ – the seemingly irrational pleasures of liking and disliking, and sharing your likes and dislikes with others, which are a fundamental part of the fun of cultural consumption. This is clearly a challenge to established forms of cultural authority – though one that is, in my view, broadly to be welcomed.

You can read a review of the book in the Columbia Journalism Review here, and follow my research on

March 20, 2012

Cultural (Policy) Studies, the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies and me

Recently we've been talking in the Centre, for various reasons, about what we're called and why. What follows is an attempt to articulate what the name ‘Centre of Cultural Policy Studies’ means to me and how the label might function as an indicator of what we do. Some of these reflections are about the ‘disciplinary’ and some are personal. The latter probably shapes the former. My own academic background, at under-graduate and Masters levels, was connected with Cultural Studies and I maintain an attachment to this label. Part of this attachment to Cultural Studies is an emotional one wrought from the realisation that people in universities could take the things I liked to do whilst growing up (television, pop-music, sport, films etc.) as seriously as the things I was supposed to do (reading, studying, working etc.). Encountering these things in the 1990s also meant that my version of Cultural Studies retained at least some of the critical and empirical emphases of its Birmingham School origins.

These emphases are important in light of the various cul-de-sacs that Cultural Studies has subsequently turned down, which might make it less immediately appealing as a label. Jason Toynbee nicely articulates these in a blog post in which he refers to Cultural Studies a ‘critical accomplice’ to neo-liberalism. Both share, he argues, a concern with the present (the everyday, the new), a libertarian rejection of the state (as either moral authority/arbiter or regulator), a celebratory focus on the individual (as potentially autonomous subject, as rational consumer) and both celebrate diversity. The discourses might be different – radically so – but the words, the labels, are the same, allowing Cultural Studies to be easily incorporated into the cool-hunting, style conscious, open-necked version of contemporary capitalism. This is the kind of capitalism which our students will find themselves working in, of course, and one valuable thread that might be retained from the Cultural Studies tapestry is the notion that the ‘consumer’ is neither just a problem to be solved by marketers or entrepreneurs nor the only thing that contemporary subjects – or people- are.

Involvement in a research project with policy implications and policy partners (the Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion Project) led me to the debates about Cultural Policy Studies as an extension of a useful Cultural Studies, as they were articulated by thinkers such as Tony Bennett and Angela McRobbie, amongst others. These debates retain an explanatory power and not just in a narrowly conceptualised ‘cultural policy’ concerned with the ‘arts’ but within the broader fields of the media, media policy and the media industries. The controversies that emerge around them, about the proper role of the intellectual as ‘technician’ or as ‘critic’ remain a good bell-weather for one’s position in the field. Two things stick out for me, which inform a general relationship to Cultural Policy Studies as a label in both teaching and research.

Firstly, the people who worked as policy advisors on the CCSE project were not speaking a different language to us. Arguably they were working where conclusions about the things we were concerned with could be acted upon. They may have had different sets of priorities but in no way could they be conceptualised as not critical – if that is to mean anything other than ‘contrary’. Engaging in conversation with them or their equivalents has the potential for direct engagement with actual political change, rather than the more diffuse forms of political change associated with the valorisation of creative or resistant consumers, the inculcation of critical sensibilities in students or through the winning of theoretical arguments. All these things are important but for ‘proper’ politics it is desirable to have conversations about the ideas we develop with decision makers. It is better to try to have such conversations and be ignored, than not to have them and marginalise ourselves. A Centre for Cultural Policy Studies seems a good stepping off point for these kinds of dialogue.

Secondly, the knockout blow in the debate about the role of the cultural intellectual was the rather simple assertion that universities and university teachers are and always have been part of state apparatuses. There is a critical complicity at work here too. Whether we like it or not academics in this field and in this Centre are, through our teaching and research, part of the process by which culture, in its broad and narrow definitions, becomes known and understood as art, as everyday life, as product and as strategy of government. A marginal part, perhaps but a significant one given the possibilities for critical reflection afforded by the academy and given that the students we teach today get to work in – and hopefully transform - the cultural and media organisations of tomorrow and the day after. In this light, Cultural Policy Studies seems to me to be as good a label as any for the combinations of the conceptual, practical and critical approaches to culture and the media that I try and take – and it is probably still better than the alternatives.

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