The Project Of Cultural Studies
The most basic—and most radical—assumption of cultural studies is that the basic unit of investigation is always relationships, and that anything can only truly be understood relationally; thus, studying culture means studying the relationships between configurations of cultural texts and practices on the one hand, and everything that is not in the first instance cultural—including economics, social relations and differences, national issues, social institutions, and so forth—on the other. It involves mapping connections, to see how those connections are being made and where they can be remade. As a result, cultural studies always involves the study of contexts—sets of relations located and circumscribed in time and space, and defined by questions. And cultural studies is always interdisciplinary because understanding culture requires looking at culture's relationship to everything that is not culture.
Moreover, cultural studies is committed to a radical contextualism; it is a rigorous attempt to contextualize intellectual (and political) work. This contextualism shapes the project of cultural studies profoundly, and involves a commitment to complexity, contingency, and constructionism.
Contexts are not random and chaotic collections of bits and pieces on which people attempt to impose order or meaning; they are already ordered or configured when the scholar embraces them in their complexity rather than reducing them to a simplicity defined ahead of time by a theoretical or political agenda. Cultural studies refuses to reduce the complex to the simple, the specific to the exemplary, and the singular to the typical. It refuses to see this complexity as an inconvenience to be acknowledged only after the analysis. It employs a conjunctive logic—where one thing is true, another may also be true—and thereby refuses the illusion of a total, all-encompassing answer. It avoids confusing projects with accomplishments (as if intentions guaranteed effects); and it refuses to put off until later the resistances, the interruptions, and the fractures and contradictions of the context.
Cultural studies believes in contingency; it denies that the shape and structure of any context is inevitable. But cultural studies does not simply reject essentialism, for anti-essentialism is, in its own way, another version of a logic of necessity: in this case, the necessity that there are never any real relations. Cultural studies is committed to what we might call an anti-anti-essentialism, to the view that there are relationships in history and reality, but they are not necessary. They did not have to be that way, but given that they are that way, they have real effects. Above all, there are no guarantees in history (or in reality) that things will form in some particular way, or work out in some particular way. Reality and history are, so to speak, up for grabs, never guaranteed. Cultural studies operates in the space between, on the one hand, absolute containment, closure, complete and final understanding, total domination, and, on the other hand, absolute freedom and possibility, and openness.
Finally, cultural studies assumes that relationships are produced or constructed, and not simply always the result of chance. The relations that make up a context are real through the various activities of different agents and agencies, including (but not limited to) people and institutions. Insofar as we are talking about the human world—and even when we are describing the physical world, we are within the human world as well—cultural practices and forms matter because they constitute a key dimension of the ongoing transformation or construction of reality. However, the effects of cultural practices are always limited by the existence of a material or nondiscursive reality. Cultural studies, then, does not make everything into culture, nor does it deny the existence of material reality. It does not assume that culture, by itself, constructs reality. To say that culture is constitutive—that it produces the world, along with other kinds of practices—does not mean that real material practices are not being enacted, or that real material conditions do not both enable and constrain the ways in which reality functions and can be interpreted. Cultural studies is, in the first instance, concerned with cultural practices. To put it simply, the culture we live in, the cultural practices we use, and the cultural forms we place upon and insert into reality, have consequences for the way reality is organized and lived.
The commitment to a radical contextualism affects every dimension of cultural studies, including its theory and politics, its questions and answers, and its analytic vocabulary—which includes concepts of culture (text, technology, media), power, and social identity (race, gender, sex, class, ethnicity, and generation). Cultural studies derives its questions, not from a theoretical tradition or a disciplinary paradigm but from a recognition that the context is always already structured, not only by relations of force and power, but also by voices of political anger, despair, and hope. Cultural studies attempts to engage the existing articulations of hope and disappointment in everyday life and to bring the messy and painful reality of power—as it operates both outside and inside the academy—into the practice of scholarship.
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