Who Needs Cultural Research?

The massive lack of public understanding of what contemporary humanities scholarship entails becomes painfully clear to me when I am asked by, say, the hairdresser, what I do. As part of my ongoing fieldwork, I generally decide to tell the truth. “I am a university teacher,” I say. “Oh,” would be the answer, “what do you teach?” I take a deep breath and say: “Cultural Studies.” What follows is usually a big silence. Conversation closed. And the hairdresser is not the only one who is embarrassed. She (or he) probably feels very ignorant because she doesn’t know what I’m talking about, while I feel bad about making her feel that way and feel hopelessly cut off from what she stands for: the general public.

Part of the silence is related to a general unawareness of the complex meanings of the term “culture” itself. For most people, “culture” is extraordinary, set apart from daily life. It is either synonymous to art, something elevated and lofty, or refers to “other people” such as migrants or Aborigines. In other words, culture is either aesthetics or anthropology, and has nothing to do with their own lives. In the academic world, what is now called “cultural studies” has revolutionised the study of culture in contemporary society, by doing away with the separation between aesthetics and anthropology. “Culture” in cultural studies relates to the production and negotiation of meaning and value, and this is an ongoing, plural, often conflictive process taking place in all dimensions of social activity, be it at the workplace, in education, the media, in international relations, even in the hairdresser’s salon. Culture is neither institutions nor texts nor behaviours, but the complex interactions between all of these. In other words, culture is not only very ordinary, to speak with Raymond Williams, it is also fundamentally practical and pervasive to social life, as it is inherent to how the world is made to mean, and therefore how the world is run. That is, arguments about how the world should be run always involve a politics of representation–the level of politics where meanings and values are struggled over–and therefore necessarily comprise a fundamental cultural dimension. “Culture” is integral to and constitutive of social life, not something outside of or a mere addition to it.

The global growth of “cultural studies” within academia in the past few decades is itself an indication of the increasing significance and contentious nature of the dimension of “culture” in contemporary life and society. In general, a sense of cultural crisis is evident everywhere around the globe despite the apparent economic success of global capitalism: the falling away of a consensus over what counts as “progress” or of universal value, the deepening of cultural divisions along lines of class, race, gender, region, religion, and so on, the real and perceived proliferation of all forms of violence, the wild growth of the Internet, the growing uncertainty about the shape of the new world disorder in the twenty-first century as the authority of the West is challenged by rising non-western nations, and so on. To use cultural studies jargon, “culture” has become an increasingly intense and multidimensional “site of struggle” in this complex, postmodern world.. Continue reading