Cultural studies  

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Loisirs Littéraires au XXe siècle (English: "Literary leasures in the 20th century") is the title of an illustration from the story "The End of Books" by French writer Octave Uzanne and illustrator Albert Robida, a story about a post-literate society in which readers have become 'hearers', consumers of audio books. It was published in the collection Contes pour les bibliophiles (1895). The illustration depicts a female reader of the 20th century, imagined by Robida, who is listening to  "12 poètes assortis" (twelve assorted poets) in on the balcony overlooking a future city.
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Loisirs Littéraires au XXe siècle (English: "Literary leasures in the 20th century") is the title of an illustration from the story "The End of Books" by French writer Octave Uzanne and illustrator Albert Robida, a story about a post-literate society in which readers have become 'hearers', consumers of audio books. It was published in the collection Contes pour les bibliophiles (1895). The illustration depicts a female reader of the 20th century, imagined by Robida, who is listening to "12 poètes assortis" (twelve assorted poets) in on the balcony overlooking a future city.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Cultural studies is an academic discipline popular among a diverse group of scholars. It combines political economy, communication, sociology, social theory, literary theory, media theory, film/video studies, cultural anthropology, philosophy, museum studies and art history/criticism to study cultural phenomena in various societies. Cultural studies researchers often concentrate on how a particular phenomenon relates to matters of ideology, nationality, ethnicity, social class, and/or gender. The term was coined by Richard Hoggart in 1964 when he founded the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. It has since become strongly associated with Stuart Hall, who succeeded Hoggart as Director.

Cultural studies concerns itself with the meaning and practices of everyday life. Cultural practices comprise the ways people do particular things (such as watching television, or eating out) in a given culture. In any given practice, people use various objects (such as iPods or crucifixes). Hence, this field studies the meanings and uses people attribute to various objects and practices. Recently, as capitalism has spread throughout the world (a process associated with globalization), cultural studies has begun to analyse local and global forms of resistance to Western hegemony.


History

The term was coined by Richard Hoggart in 1964 when he founded the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies or CCCS. It has since become strongly associated with Stuart Hall, who succeeded Hoggart as Director.

From the 1970s onward, Stuart Hall's pioneering work, along with his colleagues Paul Willis, Dick Hebdige, Tony Jefferson, and Angela McRobbie, created an international intellectual movement. Many cultural studies scholars employed Marxist methods of analysis, exploring the relationships between cultural forms (the superstructure) and that of the political economy (the base). By the 1970s, however, the politically formidable British working classes were in decline. Britain's manufacturing industries were fading and union rolls were shrinking. Yet, millions of working class Britons backed the rise of Margaret Thatcher. For Stuart Hall and other Marxist theorists, this shift in loyalty from the Labour Party to the Conservative Party was antithetical to the interests of the working class and had to be explained in terms of cultural politics.

In order to understand the changing political circumstances of class, politics, and culture in the United Kingdom, scholars at the CCCS turned to the work of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian thinker of the 1920s and 30s. Gramsci had been concerned with similar issues: why would Italian laborers and peasants vote for fascists? Why, in other words, would working people vote to give more control to corporations, and see their own rights and freedoms abrogated? Gramsci modified classical Marxism in seeing culture as a key instrument of political and social control. In this view, capitalists use not only brute force (police, prisons, repression, 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.

Scott Lash writes,

In the work of Hall, Hebdige and McRobbie, popular culture came to the fore... What Gramsci gave to this was the importance of consent and culture. If the fundamental Marxists saw power in terms of class versus class, then Gramsci gave to us a question of class alliance. The rise of cultural studies itself was based on the decline of the prominence of fundamental class-versus-class politics.

Write Edgar and Sedgwick:

The theory of hegemony was of central importance to the development of British cultural studies [particularly the CCCS]. It facilitated analysis of the ways in which subordinate groups actively resist and respond to political and economic domination. The subordinate groups need not be seen merely as the passive dupes of the dominant class and its ideology.

This line of thinking opened up fruitful work exploring agency, a theoretical outlook which reinserted the active, critical capacities of all people. Notions of agency have supplanted much scholarly emphasis on groups of people (e.g. the working class, primitives, colonized peoples, women) whose political consciousness and scope of action was generally limited to their position within certain economic and political structures. In other words, many economists, sociologists, political scientists, and historians have traditionally deprived everyday people of a role in shaping their world or outlook, although anthropologists since the 1960s have foregrounded the power of agents to contest structure, first in the work of transactionalists like Fredrik Barth, and then in works inspired by resistance theory and post-colonial theory.

At times, cultural studies' romance with agency nearly excluded the possibility of oppression, overlooks the fact that the subaltern have their own politics, and romanticizes agency, overblowing its potentiality and pervasiveness. In work of this kind, popular in the 1990s, many cultural studies scholars discovered in consumers ways of creatively using and subverting commodities and dominant ideologies. This orientation has come under fire for a variety of reasons.

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