Monday, September 3, 2007

What is Cultural Studies, Anyway? Richard Johnson.

What is an Abstract, Anyway?
Text in Red represents elements of the abstract that I expect to see. The private purpose of the abstract is to help you understand the reading; the public purposes are to demonstrate how well you've done the reading and to provide a platform from which a discussion can begin/continue. You should anticipate that I and other members of the class will be responding to and questioning your abstract.

This abstract is probably considerably longer than most will be, but do not limit yourself. Johnson's article is extremely dense and complex, and I'm intrigued by a lot of his ideas. You might also notice that there are spelling and or grammatical errors. I've read through the piece a couple of times and I've run the spell-check, but I'd need another day or two to really polish it.

Article Title
Abstract of Richard Johnson's "What Is Cultural Studies, Anyway?" 1983

Author Name
by Tom Peele

Description of Article
Here, briefly summarize the main points and the trajectory of the article. When you answer this question, imagine that you are taking a comprehensive examination in which you are asked to describe the main point of this and fifty other articles as briefly and accurately as you can within a limited time frame. What would you say?
Notice here that you don't need to talk about whether you liked the article or not and you don't necessarily need to agree with or disagree with the author's ideas. There might be times when you want to reveal whether or not you are in accord with the author, but it's not required. You'll have more of an opportunity for that in the next section. Your goal here is to present the author's ideas as clearly as you can.

Johnson begins his article with a description of the goals of cultural studies (cs). The most inclusive of his insights is that "culture involves power and helps to produce asymmetries in the abilities of individuals and social groups to define and realise their needs" (76). In other words, cs aims to study (in various ways) how culture creates asymmetries of power. He moves on to claim that, among other definitions cs should be defined (to the extent that it should be defined at all) by "its characteristic objects of study" (78).

Before Johnson describes cs's "characteristic objects of study," he presents two key terms--consciousness (the characteristically human ability to desire and dream) and subjectivity (that we are to some extent produced by the culture in which we live)--and claims that for him "cultural studies is about the historical forms of consciousness or subjectivity" (80). He presents these terms because it is in the ambiguous space between--the play between the two--in which the study of culture takes place.

Johnson then presents a map of the "circuits of culture" which include the initial production of an object, the "text" of the object itself and the texts that surround that object, the readings that these texts encounter, and, closely related to the last point, the lived cultures of which those texts are a part. These circuits of culture are in every case influenced by the social conditions in which they are produced, including their political and economic contexts. It is these cultural forms, then--objects or indeed entire cultures as they travel through these circuits--that constitute cs's "characteristic objects of study." Those objects of study, then, or not necessarily things like movies or t.v. shows or student life, but rather how those things move through a circuit.

The map of the circuit of culture also offers Johnson a way to talk about the characteristic approaches to cultural studies--production studies, textual studies, and lived cultures--and the advantages and drawbacks to each method. He concludes by arguing that, to the extent possible, a cultural study should take advantage of all three approaches.

Comments and Questions
In this part of your abstract, you'll present the article as it moves through its main argument(s). You'll also comment on the claims and various constituent arguments that the author is making; this is where you agree, disagree, extend the argument, make further connections, and respond to the text. It's fine here to observe that an argument is poorly made, but then you'll have to demonstrate your reasons. It's also fine to tell us that an article is poorly written, but only insofar as the writing interferes with your understanding of the text. In general, take the tone that you would like someone else to take if they were analyzing your writing. Imagine that the author will read what you write.

In this section, you do not have to cover in detail every aspect of the article. As you'll see, I concentrated heavily on the beginning section of the article as this section seems the most difficult. I have also speculated about what he might be trying to say, and I have offered some examples. The part of the article in which Johnson describes the approaches and their drawbacks seems very clear to me; I didn't need to write about that section of the article in order to understand it.

Johnson breaks this articles into three parts. In the first, he considers "some of the arguments for and against the academic codification of cultural studies," and in the second, "he looks at some strategies of definition short of codification" (75). He concludes by offering some of his own "preferred definitions and arguments."

Codifying cultural studies by formalizing its study is itself against the project of cultural studies, which Johnson claims is a kind of process, a kind of alchemy for producing useful knowledge" (75).

On 76, Johnson notes "where cultural studies has been Marx-influenced." He makes three observations:

  • "cultural processes are intimately connected with social relations, especially with class relations and class formations, with sexual divisions, with the racial structuring of social relations and with age oppressions as a form of dependency."

The concept of cultural processes seems key here; what are cultural processes? How do we determine where they end, where they begin? Is it helpful to think about beginnings and endings of processes like these? For example, until the 1950s female beauty was exemplified by women like Marilyn Monroe. In the 60s, with the explosion of second wave feminism, the standard for female beauty could only be attained by painful self-punishment and was exemplified by actors like Catherine Deneuve and the model Twiggy.

Men's bodies, over the same time period, seem more or less unchanged:

Michael Caine
William Holden

Humphrey Bogart

Richard Burton

This is not to say that there aren't exceptions to this rule (or even that it's a rule) but rather just to emphasize that there are cultural processes at work and that when I look at them closely I'm not sure where they begin. Where do our cultural ideas/ideals originate? If Hollywood or the press, where do they get them? How are they manipulated and changed? The study of this process or movement is a fascinating, difficult aspect of cultural studies.

Johnson's second point is that
"culture involves power and helps to produce asymmetries in the abilities of individuals and social groups to define and realize their needs" (76).

This is why cultural studies is important, why it can have an impact on the way we live. Culture involves power; representations of people, distribution of labor, accepted ways of thinking, have a material impact on our lives; cultural studies function as a kind of intervention, or social criticism, that can interrupt the flow of the ordinary. How can we change the discourse of specific subjects? How do we interrupt received knowledges?

Johnson's final point is that
"culture is neither an autonomous nor an externally determined field, but a site of social differences and struggles" (76).

His point here is less clear to me than the other two. For me, points two and three are inextricable. I think of these two as "culture produces asymmetries, but does not exist outside of, independent of, that locations in which those asymmetries are produced." This to me is the key thing about the possibilities of cultural studies--we can change the way representations are deployed by intervening in that deployment, by talking and writing about them, by questioning. That seems to me the project of cultural studies.

Johnson then points out the successful, productive critiques of cultural studies "from the women's movement and the struggles against racism," and these critiques seem to me to exemplify the productive work of cultural studies (76-77).

What happens to this critique, Johnson asks, if we codify the project of cultural studies?

Strategies of Definition

Johnson writes that the aspect of a definition of cultural studies that most interests him is "its characteristic objects of study," but first he discusses other strategies of definition. For Johnson, the key terms of cultural studies are "consciousness and subjectivity, with the key problems now lying somewhere in the relation between the two" (80).

Consciousness, as Johnson describes is, is evidenced by the fact that "human beings are characterised by an ideal or imaginary life, where will is cultivated, dreams dreamt, and categories developed" (80). And how is this important to cultural studies?

Subjectivity: "the possibility, for example, the same elements or impulses are subjectively active--they move us--without being consciously known. . . . subjectivities are produced, not given, and are therefore the objects of inquiry, not the premises or starting-point" (81).

Johnson's point in this section seems to be that for him cultural studies takes place among and between these two concepts: consciousness and subjectivity. The interplay here is between consciousness: will, desire, volition; and subjectivity: the ways in which we move into and inhabit particular identities or cultural forms (student, dutiful son, father). This is a key point, as it insists that we are not wholly determined by the cultural conditions in which we find ourselves, but that we are also self-determining.

In cultural studies, then, we study the various forms by which we identify ourselves, "to abstract, describe and reconstitute in concrete studies forms through which human beings 'live' become conscious, sustain themselves subjectively" (81).

Johnson asks "Where are all the intermediate categories that would allow us to start to specify the subjective social forms and the different moments of their existence?" (82). He seems to be arguing, here, that for cultural studies to be effective it must be more nuanced than it had been; what are the subjective social forms as they move from one state to the next? What are the impulses that move them? While these concepts are fascinating to me, they sometimes seem so abstract as to be impossible to pin down. How, specifically, can this be done? Does Johnson shy away from telling me because CS should not be codified? We are looking, here, "for principles of movement" and to "see how tendencies are modified by the other social determinations, including those at work through material needs" (82).

I read this (perhaps incorrectly) as a study of representations of identity (however that identity is represented and apprehended: observation, interview, survey, and so on. As above, I broadly defined that change of representations of men and women over a 20 year span. Work I have done in the past addresses the representations of gay men and lesbians on television. At any given moment in time, what is the range of representations on a wide variety of programs, such as Will and Grace, Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Queer as Folk (British and American versions) and Six Feet Under. Where, in the history of representation of gay men and lesbians, do these forms fit? How do they break away from or reproduce earlier forms? How is non-normative sexual identity represented? Is it implied, or are there physical manifestations? What are the social and cultural conditions that allow these forms to be represented? How might these forms be read by various viewers, and what are the conditions for decoding these forms? Does reading itself produce the form?

Circuits of Capital - Circuits of Culture; Publication and Abstraction

Johnson describes the circuit and provides and example of the Mini. An interesting example given the resurgence of the Mini. In the next section, Johnson explains the abstract/universal and the concrete/particular categories; I understand these as the various influences on any cultural form, and that one cs approach (perhaps a part of any cultural study?) is to take these influences into account. The chart on page 84 functions in two ways. First, it provides a map of how artifacts of culture (and culture itself) are produced, from production to the final form. The second way in which this chart functions is to map various approaches to the study of culture: the (1) production (2) texts of various kinds (pictures, movies, books, social settings) (3) reader reception, and (4) lived cultures. Johnson goes on in the text to describe the various advantages and disadvantages to each of these approaches. It strikes me that one way of conceiving of a a cultural study is that it works in reverse of this: one begins with the form, then moves back into the conditions of production and the cultural influence that made the form possible. It also seems to me that these approaches are not necessarily discrete. A study that takes these influences and form as its object is in effect a study of the relations of power that Johnson described in the beginning of the article.

In the next couple of sections (Forms of Culture, Forms of Study; Publication and Power) Johnson describes the culturalist (an emphasis on the study of an entire culture, such as ethnography) and the structuralist (an emphasis on the study of particular artifacts of culture) split in cultural studies, and more or less resolves it by de-emphasizing it. No matter what its objects of study, "cultural studies is necessarily and deeply implicated in relations of power" (89).

In From to Perspective of Production and Limits of the Viewpoint of Production, Johnson critiques this approach to cultural studies. I know little about this approach to cs, which is understandable as Johnson writes that it is sociologists, social historians, and political economists who are most likely to take this approach. Johnson's example of the Mini serve as a model for how I think of production: much of it is invisible, hidden, and secret. Further, as I said above, I'm not sure where production begins. Even in his example of the Mini, where were these ideas circulating before they hit the minds of those in charge of the company that produced the Mini--how did smallness and efficiency become a part of the national discourse? The executives at British Leyland weren't working in a vacuum. I've concluded that I can only make tentative stabs at the conditions of production. I might be able to trace certain ideas and themes, but my analyses will always and forever be incomplete. Determining the conditions of production is like determining who started the current fashion trend of women wearing both pants and dress at the same time. Where did it come from?

Johnson's discussion of Text-Based Studies is useful for us since it seems likely that many of us will pursue such studies in this class. Johnson offers that in these studies we articulate the studies of texts (whatever those texts may be) to wider social/cultural narratives.
In The Importance of Being Formal, Johnson makes an argument for allowing formalism--cultural studies that follow particular forms of analysis, such as semiotics. Johnson writes that "we need to abstract forms in order to describe them carefully, clearly, noting the variations and combinations" (96). The formal analysis that Barthes' version of semiotics provides a means of analysis of cultural artifacts and remains useful (according to Johnson) even in the context of recognizing the meaning shifts and does not remain stable. Over the course of the semester we'll be reading some of Barthes' work and also a piece by D.A. Miller, Place for Us , which relies on semiotics as a method of analyzing culture.

Johnson's analysis of the term "text" in What is a Text, Anyway? opens the range of possibilities to include virtually any object of study, and also makes that comment that the "text is only a means in cultural study; strictly, perhaps, it is a raw material from which certain forms . . . may be abstracted. But the ultimate object of cultural studies is not, in my view, the text, but the social life of subjective forms at each moment of their circulation, including their textual embodiments" (97). Thus, the purpose for analyzing a text is not to fetishize it but rather to examine it as an artifact in the circulation of meaning.

In the remainder of the article, Johnson describes the drawbacks and advantage to the remaining form of cs analysis: reader based or lived-experience based studies. Johnson thus describes in some detail three kinds of cultural study: "production-based studies, text-based studies, and studies of lived cultures" (107). He concludes by offering that within reason a cultural study should not limit itself to one approach but that it should take advantage of all three.


Ghostwriter said...

Thank you for this summary. I also found the reading quite complex and found myself taking notes like crazy just to try and make sense of it. One thing I found intriguing right from the opening statement was how Johnson described cultural studies as a network (75). I think the idea is quite apt, especially when you consider the multi-disciplinary aspects of his ideas. If cultural studies involves so many disciplines, I have to wonder if the best way to approach research in the discipline might be collaboratively, with experts from different areas examining cultural movements from their different viewpoints and then coming together to create analysis.


Jenny said...

I have to say that I was completely lost reading this article. Of course, I was in a haze from a cold and feeling really bad, but still I didn't "get it". After reading Tom's post I feel like I at least understand what Johnson was saying in his article. I think the wording he used was a little confusing, but this sentence from Tom's summary at least helped me to define what cultural studies is (in the way that cultural studies allows itself to be defined): "Culture involves power; representations of people, distribution of labor, accepted ways of thinking, have a material impact on our lives; cultural studies function as a kind of intervention, or social criticism, that can interrupt the flow of the ordinary."