Department of Theatre and Film
The Intent of Methodology: Cultural Studies, Film Studies and Challenging the Corporate Demands of the Academy
Justin Philpot is a doctoral student in the American Culture Studies program at Bowling Green State University. Against all advice he is still interested in nearly everything.
The history of cultural studies and film studies is intertwined. As a discipline film studies preceded cultural studies, but as academia began to shift in response to the new theoretical and methodological perspectives that defined the “cultural turn” the two fields became increasingly linked. As cultural studies gained credibility through the 1960s and 1970s film scholars began to incorporate cultural theory into their work, and scholars in other fields began to study film. Philip Rosen describes this as “the emergence of a generation of thinkers about film who h[ad] in common a basic core bibliography regarding theories of culture and criticism” (vii). Without question this relationship broadened the scope of each discipline to their mutual benefit. But while this relationship can be said to be a key component of contemporary research, it cannot be assumed to have the same primary influence in the classroom. There can be little doubt that the political impulse of cultural studies, as attenuated and amplified through film studies, is at risk of being ejected altogether from a system of higher education defined by a corporate management ethos. If the two fields are to have a shared future, scholars and educators need to be vigilant, active, and even mercenary in their defense of their discipline and, most importantly, their shared methodological perspective.
Both cultural studies and film studies have become victims of the increasingly corporate structure of higher education in the United States. In his essay “The Corporate University in American Society” David Schultz defines the corporate university in part as “market participants and actors, competing for investors, students, and revenue” (Schultz). This is increasingly the case for all colleges and universities, reaching far beyond those typically associated with the corporatization of higher education such as the University of Phoenix. Indeed, the corporate management model seems to be the solution for schools facing decreasing state funds and limited private sector investment. With an imperative to cut costs and raise revenue, public universities are seeking to increase enrollment in programs that are cash positive, including professional development programs and online courses, and to cut programs which cost too much. This is done in part by reducing the number of tenured faculty; but indirect, and less controversial, methods can be just as effective. By linking budget allocation with enrollment numbers, programs and departments are forced to adapt their curricula to appeal to more students in the hopes of generating more majors and minors. One of the ways departments seek to accomplish this is by “meeting students on their own ground,” offering courses on topics which are considered interesting to incoming undergraduates or by making core required classes more appealing through the addition of multimedia elements, including film or other pop culture products. This poses a direct threat to the critical, interdisciplinary nature of contemporary cultural studies and film studies alike.
An important distinction can be made between film studies and studies with film, where “studies” is a stand-in for any discipline which does not take film as its primary subject. This is not to privilege one over the other. Watching the Jazz Singer (Alan Crossland, 1927) in an American History class, where the focus in doing so might be on representations of racial difference in the U.S. in the pre-civil rights era, need not be considered less valuable an experience for students than watching it in a History of Film course, where the focus would be on elaborating industry and production conditions surrounding the transition to sound film in the late 1920s. They are different projects with different ends. These examples are, however, inextricably related. What unifies them is a commitment to a methodology, an interdisciplinary imperative, which cannot be sustained if the only reason to show a film in class is to generate student interest in the hopes of remaining a financially viable component of a corporate university. 1
Only by maintaining a methodology that demands textual, historical and cultural analysis can cultural studies and film studies remain vital, critical components of academia and, hopefully, stave off the dilution of purpose necessarily resulting from a shift to studies with film for financial reasons. Richard Maltby’s contention that “Hollywood cinema must be understood through the specific historical conditions of its circulation as a commercial property” challenges scholars to develop a dynamic interdisciplinary approach to film study (554). Acknowledging from the first that “movies are products for consumption” and have a “commercial existence” allows scholars to take a comprehensive view of movies otherwise denied them by other methodologies (Matlby 554). Far from limiting the scope of film study, such an approach demands nuanced application of multiple, discrete knowledges, all of which play a part in creating movies as cultural products. Such a demand can, and should, be made in the classroom as well.
Eric Smoodin describes four categories for teaching the history of film and film study in America in the introduction to the anthology Looking Past the Screen. The first he describes as “industrial systems” consisting of technological advancements, labor practices and economics. Second are regulatory systems, including censorship. Third is what he describes as reception, but would in cultural studies be called audience or fan analysis. Fourth is representation, “the images and narratives that make up the text” (4). All but the final category necessitates studying material outside the film itself, by definition placing the larger subject well within the bounds of not only cultural studies but other disciplines as well. For Smoodin the primary sources for comprehensive film study must include, but can never be limited to, the film itself.
This is a familiar position for cultural studies scholars, and well established in film studies. What Smoodin suggests speaks to the very heart of cultural studies as a politically motivated academic discourse. To take on film study as a comprehensive, interdisciplinary task requires the continued examination of what Stuart Hall called “the nexus of culture and power” (ix). Although Hall was speaking about the subculture projects undertaken at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Study at Birmingham, Smoodin’s contention that there is more to be found behind the creation of the cultural product (film) than in the product itself provides a methodological foundation for a type of “cultural historical analysis of the social formation” through film instead of subculture (Hall viii). Placing film into a historical context, then, is vital for both a thorough understanding of the industrial influences, regulatory restrictions, reception and representation of the film itself, but can also be a critical lens to examine the ways in which American culture is injected into the process at every stage. These elements stand to be washed away entirely in the corporate university.
Although the dangers posed by corporate management of education are imminent, some issues are pre-existing. The methodology described by Smoodin is not, he argues, universal. Many film classes are built around the film as a text, not historical analysis, so “classes in which films are not shown or that form a secondary part of the curriculum seem unthinkable, primarily because of the architecture of the classroom and the time devoted to each class” (17). Any history the students encounter is text based, concerned with aesthetics and narrative and little else. While this may indeed be the case for some film classes, classes in other departments, such as History or American Culture Studies, offer a venue where the film is indeed a secondary, yet vital, part of a larger curriculum. When there is no methodology at all, however, both disciplines, as well as the students, are done a grave, lasting disservice. Unfortunately this possibility is made more likely by the unique positioning and checkered history of popular culture studies in the United States.
The failure to adopt comprehensive historical analysis as a standard film studies methodology may have less to do with film studies or the rise of studies with film than with the confused nature of popular culture studies. Popular culture is the secondary specialty du jour. The national Popular Culture Association conference features dozens of film panels and hundreds of presenters, most in programs or departments which are not wholly concerned with either film or popular culture. It is not unfair to suggest that the bulk of work being done on film outside of film studies programs is tackled in programs where writing a paper on a movie is a delightful distraction. Yet, because of the close association of cultural studies and film studies, and by extension popular culture studies, there is a prevailing sense that to study popular culture means to study film. This poses an interesting problem. Despite the clear relationship between cultural studies and popular culture studies it is also true that, with a lone exception (the popular culture studies department at Bowling Green State University), popular culture studies is a discipline within disciplines, broken up and practiced in other fields—History, English, and Film, to name a few. And while film may be too well established to suffer a similar fate, there still exists the possibility that if film can be taught profitably in other departments, maybe separate film programs, schools or departments will be sacrificed to budget cuts.
If the conflation of film and popular culture are not problematic enough there is another, perhaps more pressing, issue: popular culture has lost its politics. British cultural studies was imported roughly around the same time that Dr. Ray Browne and others were advocating for the academic study of popular culture in the United States. While some political discourse remains in concepts like hegemonic power and approaches like critical theory, the dominant concern over the “nexus of culture and power” does not have a strong foothold in the American study of popular culture. A lot of energy and ink was expended in the long debate over what constituted popular culture, where it could be found, and what it meant. While British theorists were concerned with the ways in which hegemonic power was expressed through systems of media, American popular culture scholars were teasing out the functions and meanings of certain motifs in genre fiction. Historical analysis and everything it represented for British cultural theorists was pushed aside in favor of detailed interpretations of specific texts. The impact of this is still evident today.
It need not have worked out this way. Even in the earliest stages of defining the new academic field, Dr. Browne advocated for a comprehensive view of popular culture that mirrors Smoodin’s perspective on film. In his germinal essay “Popular Culture: Notes Towards a Definition” published in 1972 Browne offers his own, inclusive, definition. He writes:
One serious scholar defines total culture as ‘the body of intellectual and imaginative work which each generation receives’ as its tradition. Basing our conclusion on this one, a viable definition for Popular Culture is all those elements of life which are not narrowly intellectual or creatively elitist… Popular Culture consists of the spoken and printed word, sounds, pictures, objects and artifacts. “Popular Culture” thus embraces all levels of our society . . . It includes most of the bewildering aspects of life that hammer us daily (21).
Browne’s argument for inclusion is meaningful. At the time he was making a case for popular culture to enter the academy as a valued subject of intellectual inquiry. But Browne was also quick to note that his definition would eventually become invalid. “Such a definition” he wrote, “provides the latitude needed at this point, it seems, for the serious scholar to study the world around him (sic) . . . inclusiveness is perhaps better than exclusiveness” (21). Browne’s model was meant to be reconsidered and altered over time. In fact, he felt it was vital.
Browne’s insistence that popular culture be considered a comprehensive pursuit extended beyond subject matter and into methodology as well. In an essay published in 1984 titled “Popular Culture as the New Humanities” Browne wrote: “For academics a proper examination is the numerous other fields of inquiry going on around them. There is a symbiotic relationship between popular culture and these many other fields of investigation” (84). Failure to exploit opportunities creates an atmosphere in which those in power hinder progress to their own ends, Browne argues, suggesting that “Although Elitists through time continually change their statements about their clothes, history always recognizes the fraud and convicts them of indecent exposure” (84).
Smoodin and Browne are both arguing for the same thing – comprehensive, interdisciplinary analysis in their respective fields. And although there remains the need to confront the text directly, the great benefit of considering it only a part, albeit an important one, of a much larger web of relationships cannot be ignored. The fact that film has been wrapped up into popular culture studies is not wholly negative, even if current conditions are not entirely favorable to the kind of work Smoodin suggests. Rather, comprehensive study of film from a popular culture context, within the framework suggested by Browne, may over time help bring the politics back to popular culture study in the United States while simultaneously offering an expansive film studies perspective.
A comprehensive film studies approach could lead to adoption and adaptation across a number of different fields and disciplines within the academy, forcing scholars to make new personal, theoretical and political connections in an attempt to better understand and order the world around them. But it is also an opportunity to directly challenge the imposition of a corporate structure in higher education from the ground up. If departments maintained a dedication to the type of analysis now familiar to cultural studies and film studies scholars, even studies with film would present a nuanced, critical perspective in the classroom in direct opposition to the economic demands of a corporate institution. Even in the case of department or university designed courses this perspective could be maintained, provided the faculty involved were dedicated to the project. It just may be that film studies and popular culture studies, despite their awkward and perhaps disadvantaged positions, are in fact positioned to offer direct challenges to corporate universities as a result of their popularity, ubiquity and diffusion.
1This issue becomes even more pressing in light of the increasing use of adjuncts and instructors hired not for their relative expertise but because they are cheaper than full-time, tenured faculty.
Browne, Ray B. “Popular Culture: Notes Toward a Definition.” Popular Culture Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introduction. Eds. Harold E. Hines, Marilyn F. Motz and Angela M.S. Nelson. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 2006. 15-22.
Browne, Ray B. “Popular Culture as the New Humanities.” Popular Culture Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introduction. Eds. Harold E. Hines, Marilyn F. Motz and Angela M.S. Nelson. Madison: U of Wisconsin Press, 2006. 75-84.
Hall, Stuart. “Once More Round ‘Resistance Through Rituals.’” Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. New York: Routledge, 2006. vii-xxxii.
Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema. Malden: Blackwell, 2003.
Rosen, Philip. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia U Press, 1986. vii-xi.
Shultz, David. “The Corporate University in American Society.” Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture. Fall 2005. <http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_4.4/schultz.htm>. Last accessed April 6, 2010.
Smoodin, Eric. “The History of Film History.” Looking Past the Screen. Eds. John Lewis and Eric Smoodin. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. 1-33.