Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Abstract of Stuart Hall's "Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms"
by Tom Peele

Description of Article
The two paradigms within Cultural Studies that form the basis of Hall's title are culturalism and structuralism. Culturalism claims that experience is the base of culture; structuralism claims that experience is an effect of culture, that culture is an unconscious manifestation, and that consciousness (self-determination) is merely another effect of unconsciousness.

Hall begins this article with a description of the foundational texts of Cultural Studies: Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, and Williams' Culture and Society and The Long Revolution (31, 31-32). His purpose, here, is to demonstrate that though these scholars' ideas changed over time, the enduring and perhaps defining feature of their work is their insistence on experience as the basis of culture. Hall calls this a culturalist position.

He posits the culturalist position, with its reliance on experience, against a structuralist position, which claims that experience is itself merely an effect of culture; the concept of "genuine experience" is in fact the result of culture itself. Hall claims that Cultural Studies takes place in between these two broad and opposing concepts. The main strength of culturalism is that it insist on human agency and the relevance of individuality. The main strength of structuralism is that it insists that human agency must always be considered within the context of pre-existing conditions.

By happy coincidence, Hall maps two of the main directions we'll take in this course -- the study of Barthes and semiotics, and the study of Foucault and agency within pre-existing conditions.

Key Terms

base and superstructure
culturalist (below)
structuralist (below)
ideology (41)
over-determination (41, 44)
ideological state apparatus (42)

Comments and Questions

Hall tells us that in the history of ideas, what we find is an "untidy bu characteristic unevenness of development. What is important are the significant breaks - where old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes" (31). Clearly, here is the premise of this article.

Hall outlines the beginnings of what we currently call "cultural studies," and describes how the field itself emerges "from one such moment" in the form of three foundational texts: Hoggart's The Uses of Literacy, and Williams' Culture and Society and The Long Revolution (31, 31-32).

These texts were made possible by and were in response to British culture in the 1960's and 70's, was "roughly coterminous with what has been called the 'agenda' of the New Left. . . . [and] placed the 'politics of intellectual work' squarely at the centre of Cultural Studies from the beginning" (32, 33).

Like Johnson, Hall doesn't define "culture" or "cultural studies," but he does briefly "resume the characteristic stresses and emphases through which the concept has arrived at its present state of (in)-determinacy" (33).

Again following Williams in Revolution, Hall describes "two different ways of conceptualizing culture"; culture is the sum of the "available descriptions through which societies make sense of and reflect their common experiences" (33). Culture is ordinary, then; this concept constitutes a radical departure from earlier concepts of culture, even though is deals with the question of ideas. It thinks of ideas as all the ways of making meaning, and not just of high literary texts.

The second concept of culture is made up of social practices. This concept seems rather more abstract than ideas, and once I compare it with the concept of culture, it makes both seem abstract almost to the point of incomprehension. The "theory of culture," he writes, "is defined as 'the study of relationships between elements in a whole way of life'. Culture is not a practice. . . . It is threaded through all social practices and is the sum of their inter-relationships" (34). One was to study, then, all aspects of culture, and not separate our specific aspects.

My question here, then, is how do we separate a culture's ideas from its social practices? Isn't meaning making itself a social practice? Is that my view simply because of my profession?

For the next several pages, Hall describes the changes in the ways Williams and Thompson defined culture, but concludes that while these changes (and the differences in their ways of thinking) are significant, the key feature of their definitions of culture is that "in their tendency to reduce practices to
praxis and to find common and homologous 'forms' underlying the most apparently differentiated areas, their movement is 'essentializing'. They have a particular way of understanding totailty. . . . They understand it 'expressively'" (39). This, then, is what Hall describes as the Culturalist tradition in cultural studies.

Hall then claims that the "'culturalist' strand in Cultural Studies was interrupted by the arrival on the intellectual scene of the 'structuralisms'" (39). Hall describes the difference between the culturalist and structuralist strands in cultural studies:

whereas the 'culturalist' paradigm can be defined without requiring a conceptual reference to the term 'ideology' . . . the 'structuralist' interventions have been largely articulated around the concept of 'ideology': . . . in keeping with its more impeccably Marxist lineage, 'culture' does not figure so prominently. (39)

These are the "two paradigms" to which Hall refers in his title. According the Hall, "it was Lévi-Strauss, and the early semiotics, which made the first break" (39).

On 39, Hall, following Lévi-Strauss, makes a distinction between "praxis" and "practices." I'm curious about this distinction, since the two seem more or less interchangeable to me. The difference, though, doesn't seem particularly important to Hall's argument.

Hall describes some of Lévi-Strauss's contributions to cultural studies (39-41) but summarizes the important distinction between culturalism and structuralism in the following paragraph:

despite their apparent overlaps, culturalism and structuralism were starkly counterposed. We can identify this counterposition at one of its sharpest points, precisely around the concept of 'experience,' and the rôle the term played in each perspective. Whereas, in 'culturalism,' experience was the ground - the terrain of 'the lived' -- where consciousness and conditions intersected, structuralism insisted that 'experience' could not, by definition, be the ground of anything, since one could only 'live' and experience one's conditions in and through the categories, classifications and frameworks of the culture. These categories, however, did not arise from or in experience: rather, experience was their 'effect.'(41)

Here, then, seems to be the key definition of the two paradigms -- culturalism relies on the authenticity of experience, while structuralism claims that all experience is determined in advance by the culture in which one finds oneself. This seems to me to be more or less parallel to Johnson's discussion of consciousness and subjectivity, with consciousness being the culturalist position and subjectivity being the structuralist position. Hall, quoting Lévi-Strauss, uses the term consciousness:

Ideology is indeed a system of 'representations', but in the majority of cases these representations have nothing to do with 'consciousness' . . . " it is above all as structures that they impose on the vast majority of men, not via their 'consciousness' . . . it is within this ideological unconsciousness that men succeed in altering the 'lived' relations between them and the world and acquiring the new form of specific unconsciousness called 'consciousness'. (41-42)

Thus, consciousness itself is an effect of unconsciousness -- it is merely another form of unconsciousness.

Hall's take, though, is that neither concept is "adequate to the task of constructing the study of culture as a conceptually clarified and theoretically informed domain of study" (42).

The first strength of structuralism that Hall describes is that it stresses determinate conditions. Any cultural analysis must take economic and political conditions into account. Structuralism also offers us the opportunity for abstract thinking, for "movement between different levels of abstraction," as a way of making sense of culture (43). Would culturalism insist on the description of experience only? Would description of experience constitute cultural study? Hall claims that Cultural Studies has driven itself, or been driven into, a "Poverty of Theory" position (43).

Hall describes two more strengths of structuralism (44-45) then moves to a discussion of the strengths of culturalism (45). The first contribution of culturalism that Hall describes is that it insists that consciousness -- deliberate movement within particular constraints -- "properly restores the dialectic between the unconsciousness of cultural categories and the moment of of conscious organization: even if, in its characteristic movement, it has tended to match structuralism's over-emphasis on 'conditions' with an altogether too-inclusive emphasis on 'consciousness'" (45). This seems once again to echo Johnson; a cultural study moves between given conditions and human desire (consciousness).

Hall concludes by describing three other paradigms in cultural studies which he felt were not central but significant to the project of cultural studies--the reconstitution of the subject in structuralist models of cultural studies, a return to classical Marxism's economic model, and Foucault's suspension of "the nearly-insoluble problems of determination" which "has made possible a welcome return to the concrete analysis of particular ideological and discursive formation, and the sites of their elaboration" (47). I disagree, however, with the critique of Foucault in which he claims that the problem with Foucault is that he "so resolutely suspends judgment, and adopts so thoroughgoing a scepticism about any determinacy or relationship between practices, other than largely contingent, that we are entitled to see him . . . as deeply committed to the necessary non-correspondence of all practices to one another" (47). Following David Halperin in St. Foucault, I'll argue that Foucault does offer a very specific analysis of the relationship between practices.


Bill said...

Thanks for the post--really helpful.

Along with the parallels you draw between Johnson and Hall's work, I couldn't help but notice another in the first couple paragraphs: Hall's description of the breaks--"where old lines of thought are disrupted, older constellations displaced, and elements, old and new, are regrouped around a different set of premises and themes" (31), seems to echo Johnson's sentiments about avoiding modes of inquiry within cultural studies that are too narrow in their rigidity: "this is not a question of aggregating existing approaches. . .but of reforming the elements of different approaches in their relations to eachother" (78). Each author is clearly in favor of repositioning concepts and questions to form the best approach possible. For me, this is an important point--not just for the thematic importance of the breaks in the piece, but because it seems to me that the kind of intellectual dissonance and tension that stems from Hall's notion of the breaks is the fuel that pushes not just cultural studies, but any academic discipline forward.

I was also very interested in the question you posed about the social nature of meaning-making: I agree with you, that it is a social practice. Bit of a tangent, but lately, I've latched onto one of Oakeshott's interpretations of Vygotsky (I'm sure you're familiar with it) that has further convinced me of the social nature of meaning: "human conversation takes place within us as well as among us. . .reflective thought is public or social conversation internalized. . .writing is internalized conversation re-externalized" (419-22). Later,


ShannonG said...

I'm also very grateful for your abstract, Tom. It helped me grasp some of the basic concepts of cultural studies that are still so new to me as I study this discipline for the first time.

I agree with Hall that cultural studies must work within the common ground, or compromise, of culturalism and structuralism. I believe are experiences are experienced within the individual lens of culture and are therefore extremely impacted by our culture and at the same time, what is culture but a sum of all of our experiences and ideas(both subconscious and conscious)that we have acquired during our lifetimes?

I also like your question about separating ideas from social practices. I do think the formation of an idea is a social practice, largely affected by our cultural heritage, and in that sense it is hard to seperate the two. However, it is easier for me to see the distinction when I think about the fact that social practices have no context or meaning without ideas and understandings to inform them. I think of my wedding invitation artifact as a perfect example of a whole sea of social practices affected by ideas and meaning making.