Cultural Studies, Theory, And Power
While cultural studies is committed to the absolute necessity of theoretical work, it sees theory as a resource to be used to respond strategically to a particular project, to specific questions and specific contexts. The measure of a theory's truth is its ability to enable a better understanding of a particular context and to open up new—or at least imagined—possibilities for changing that context. In this sense, cultural studies desacralizes theory in order to take it up as a contingent strategic resource. Thus, cultural studies cannot be identified with any single theoretical paradigm or tradition; it continues to wrestle with various modern and postmodern philosophies, including Marxism, phenomenology, hermeneutics, pragmatism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism.
Cultural studies does not begin with a general theory of culture but rather views cultural practices as the intersection of many possible effects. It does not start by defining culture or its effects, or by assembling, in advance, a set of relevant dimensions within which to describe particular practices. Instead, cultural practices are places where different things can and do happen. Nor can one assume, in advance, how to describe the relation of specific cultural formations to particular organizations of power. Consequently, the common assumption that cultural studies is, necessarily, a theory of ideology and representation, or of identity and subjectivity, or of the circulation of communication (production-text-consumption), or of hegemony, is mistaken. Cultural studies often addresses such issues, but that is the result of analytic work on the context rather than an assumption that overwhelms the context.
Like a number of other often overlapping bodies of intellectual and academic work that have emerged since World War II (feminism, critical race theory, postcolonial theory, and queer theory, among others), cultural studies is politically driven; it is committed to understanding power—or more accurately, the relationships of culture, power, and context—and to producing knowledge that might help people understand what is going on in the world (or in particular contexts) and the possibilities that exist for changing it.
The project of cultural studies, then, is a way of politicizing theory and theorizing politics. Cultural studies is always interested in how power infiltrates, contaminates, limits, and empowers the possibilities that people possess to live their lives in dignified and secure ways. For if one wants to change the relations of power—if one wants to move people, even a little bit—one must begin from where people are, from where and how they actually live their lives. Cultural studies attempts to strategically deploy theory (and empirical research) to gain the knowledge necessary to redescribe the context in ways that will enable the articulation of new or better political strategies. Cultural studies also approaches power and politics as complex, contingent, and contextual phenomena and refuses to reduce power to a single dimension or axis, or to assume in advance what the relevant sites, goals, and forms of power and struggle might be. Consequently, it advocates a flexible, somewhat pragmatic or strategic, and often modest approach to political programs and possibilities.
Two of the most important political assumptions of cultural studies are also among its most controversial. Cultural studies refuses to assume that people are dupes, constantly manipulated by the producers of culture and ignorant of their own subordination. On the other hand, it does not assume that people are always in control, always resisting, or operating with an informed understanding of the context. That does not mean that cultural studies doesn't recognize that people are often duped by contemporary culture, that they are lied to, and that at times—and for a variety of reasons—either don't know it or refuse to admit it. But it does mean that cultural studies is opposed to the vanguardism of so much of contemporary political and intellectual discourse.
Cultural studies is committed to contestation, sometimes as a fact of reality, but always as a possibility that must be sought out. Contestation can also serve as a description of cultural studies' own strategic practice, which sees the world as a field of struggle and a balance of forces. Intellectual work is required to understand the balance and find ways of challenging and changing it. Of course, cultural studies recognizes that the relations among survival, change, struggle, resistance, and opposition are not predictable in advance, and that there are many forms and sites that each can take and has taken; these range from everyday life and social relations to economic and political institutions. Cultural studies, then, is an effort to produce knowledge about the context that will help to strengthen, existing struggles and constituencies, helping to relocate and redirect them, or to organize new struggles and constituencies. It seeks knowledge that will make the contingency of the present visible and open up possibilities that will help to make the world a better, more humane, place.
While it attempts to put knowledge in the service of politics, cultural studies also attempts to make politics listen to the authority of knowledge. It believes that its political commitment (and its desire for intervention) demands that it maintain a justifiable claim to authority in the face of the threat of a relativism often linked to contextualist and constructivist projects. Cultural studies, like many of its political allies in the academy, rejects foundationalism. It does believe that knowledge is dependent on its context, and hence, that all knowledge is limited and partial. There is no knowledge that is not always marked by the possibilities and the limits of the position and perspective from which it is constructed and offered.
Yet cultural studies also rejects relativism, for like foundationalism, relativism assumes that knowledge and culture exist on a different plane from the context they purport to represent. But if the knower is a constituent part of the very context he or she is trying to know, the description plays an active part in the construction of the very context it describes. The question of better or worse knowledge is, then, no longer a matter of comparing two things (the description and the reality) as if there were some place outside the reality that we could stand in order to compare them. The question is rather a matter of the possible effects of the knowledge on the context—what possibilities for change does it enable? The better the knowledge, the more (new) possibilities it will offer for transforming the present. That is what cultural studies means when it talks about knowledge without truth, and about useful knowledge. Cultural studies does demand a kind of self-reflection on its own limitations, but this is not, as in some other projects, a requirement that one define one's identity as if it were determining, but rather that one offer a rigorous analysis of institutional conditions and a reflection of one's own contextual existence.
The question of what cultural studies will (or should) look like is only answerable within the particular context that calls cultural studies into existence. Cultural studies is not alone in privileging the questions of power or in its commitment to relationality and constructionism; it is not alone in its embrace of contingency and contextuality or in recognizing the importance of culture. But the practice that is defined by the intersection of all these commitments—that is the project of cultural studies. Cultural studies is an intellectually grounded practice for intervening into the "becoming" of contexts and power. It attempts, temporarily and locally, to place theory in-between in order to enable people to act more strategically in ways that may change their context for the better.
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