Department of Theatre and Film
Editorial Comment: Media Studies as "Work That Matters": Intersections between Media Studies and Cultural Studies in the Analysis of Popular Culture
The study of popular culture texts is one of the sites at which the disciplinary concerns of media studies and cultural studies converge. There is a large amount of media studies scholarship that is written from a cultural studies perspective, as well as a large amount of cultural studies scholarship that examines popular media. This is not to suggest that all media studies work is cultural studies work, or that all cultural studies work focuses on media texts or media production; nor is it to suggest that all work in either field should be exclusively devoted to a cultural studies approach to media analysis. Rather, it is to point out that the study of popular media in both fields is at something of a crossroads in the current moment, one at which I think it is necessary for those of us who work in the intersecting spaces between media studies and cultural studies to acknowledge the ways in which media analysis undertaken from a critical cultural studies perspective is vital to both fields.
The importation of audience reception study from literary scholarship into media and cultural studies scholarship over the past thirty years has been a crucial development in both disciplines, opening up new areas of research around fan cultures, fandom practices and the various uses to which audiences of popular media texts employ those texts. A lot of innovative and significant work has come out of the application of audience reception study to the analysis of popular media, including David Morley’s The Nationwide Audience: Structure and Decoding (1980), John Fiske’s Television Culture (1987), Alexander Doty’s Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture (1993), Constance Penley’s NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America (1997), and Henry Jenkins’s Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006)—all of which are concerned to one degree or another with examining the ways in which audiences of popular media texts appropriate those texts in order to negotiate or to subvert the dominant cultural values embedded within them. More recently, however, there has been a notable shift in scholarship surrounding popular media away from writing about fandom practices in relation to a particular text and towards writing about particular texts from a fan perspective, a perhaps unintended side effect of the marriage of audience reception study to media and cultural studies work that has begun to blur the distinctions between blog entries on Internet fan sites, music, film or television reviews in the popular press, and the critical analysis of media texts that both media studies and cultural studies have traditionally taken as a central component of their respective scholarly endeavors.
As a result, the scope of the study of popular media within both fields threatens to narrow to uncritical celebrations of aesthetics or narrative that are less interested in contextualizing the study of popular media within a historical and cultural framework than in reflecting on the pleasures of consuming a given text. One of the most obvious examples of this approach to media analysis can be found in the large body of scholarship generated around the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the refereed academic journal Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, the majority of which is devoted to formalist analyses of the program, as well as to arguments for why it should be considered an exemplary television text. However, this is certainly not the only site at which the analysis of popular media is limited to the level of the text, precluding any examination of its social or political dimensions. In the last year alone Popular Culture Association regional conferences in the United States have included entire panels devoted to tracing particular themes or representational motifs in the television series Mad Men, True Blood and Torchwood (to cite just a few examples), none of which undertook to examine these series within a larger cultural or ideological context, but all of which engaged in uncritical ruminations on their formal characteristics and/or the pleasures of viewing them.
Formalist analysis is, of course, a fundamental part of the study of popular media, and I want to be clear at this point that I am not arguing that it doesn’t have a place in either media studies or cultural studies scholarship, nor am I suggesting that formalist analysis is less important to these fields or less consequential as scholarship than ideological analysis is. What I do want to suggest is that if formalist analysis is not balanced by approaches to the study of popular media that move beyond the text itself, and if the only criteria for formalist analysis is the level of enjoyment derived from consuming a given text, then media scholarship becomes closed off from potential avenues of inquiry that not only broaden the range of that scholarship, but also connect the production and consumption of media texts to the material conditions, dominant values and social structures of the cultures in which they are created and in which they circulate. It is an emphasis on this aspect of popular culture that ideological analysis has brought to media studies, and this emphasis needs to remain central to scholarship surrounding popular media if that scholarship is to continue to have any relevance beyond an appreciation of the art of media production.
Debates over the merits of scholarship that celebrates popular culture versus scholarship that critiques it are, of course, not new to the field of cultural studies, which has been divided almost from its inception between two distinct approaches to the study of cultural texts and practices, one predicated upon interrogating their ideological uses and one predicated upon praising their populist appeal. Designated respectively as “British” and “American” cultural studies, these approaches are not rooted in nationalist identity (nor the national affiliation of their practitioners, who span all parts of the globe), but rather in their focus on and their interest in the study of popular culture. American cultural studies emerged primarily out of the work of scholars in the United States like Russell Nye and Ray Browne, the latter of whom founded the first academic department devoted exclusively to the study of popular culture at Bowling Green State University in 1973. In response to critics like Dwight MacDonald and Edmund Wilson who lamented the rise of popular mass produced and distributed entertainment forms, in part because of their “lowbrow” content and in part because of their purported status as “commodity” rather than as “art,” Browne and Nye were among the first to argue for the legitimacy of popular culture both as culture and as an object of academic inquiry.
Much early scholarship in the American cultural studies vein is concerned with the question of how to define “popular” culture—and, by extension, how to delineate the interrogatory scope of cultural studies in ways that differentiate it from other fields like literature, sociology and anthropology that also study popular texts or practices. This focus on examining what popular culture is continues to inform contemporary media scholarship that follows in the American cultural studies tradition. It is also one of the ways in which media studies work undertaken from the American cultural studies perspective differs from media studies work undertaken from the British cultural studies perspective, which takes as its focus not the question of which media texts are popular, but rather why it matters that they are.
Perhaps because in early American cultural studies scholarship theorizations of the popular are frequently inseparable from attempts to differentiate popular culture from elite culture in ways that are not dismissive of the relevance or the value of popular culture, this scholarship is also primarily concerned with justifying why popular culture is worthy of scholarly analysis. To this end, Browne argues in his foundational essay “Popular Culture as the New Humanities” that
the so-called ‘elite’ or ‘minority’ culture may have some influence according to the degree it is brought to the people and made applicable to their everyday lives. But the popular culture is already with the people, a part of their everyday lives, speaking their language. It is therefore irresistibly influential. What it is, the way it works and its relation to the other humanities need to be understood if we are to appreciate its overwhelming influence in our lives. (75, italics in original)
This need for American cultural studies to justify itself as a legitimate form of intellectual inquiry in its early days is one of the things that aligns it with British cultural studies, which also faced a similar task in its infancy. Significantly, though, while early British cultural studies work often argued in a similar manner for the value in studying culture (popular or otherwise), when debates concerning social and intellectual differentiations between elite and mass culture are taken up within British cultural studies scholarship it is almost always to interrogate the ideological function of these differentiations, as, for example, in Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. This is in marked contrast to American cultural studies work, where the stake in challenging the cultural supremacy of elite culture over mass culture is almost always one of aesthetic value.
Thus, when Browne argues for the importance of understanding “what [popular culture] is, the way it works and its relation to the other humanities” in order to “appreciate its overwhelming influence in our lives” in the passage quoted above, what he is arguing for is the importance of valuing high art and low art equally, so that we can come to the realization that “much of the popular culture is to be appreciated” (76), not for the importance of fully “appreciate[ing]” the ways in which cultural texts seek to “influence” our values, our behaviors, or our sense of self. This concern with questions of aesthetics or formal construction over questions of ideology is central to a lot of American cultural studies-influenced work both past and present, which as a whole seems much more invested in arguing for the social relevance of popular texts or practices than in examining, questioning, or critiquing their social impact. Accordingly, Lawrence E. Mintz, in cautioning against the “merely descriptive, superficially explicatory, or uncritically enthusiastic examinations of popular culture” that he charges “weakened some programs and publications” in the early years of American cultural studies (155), offers a set of critical criteria for the analysis of popular culture from within an American cultural studies framework. That criteria, though, while demanding attention to the question of “what kinds of aesthetic evaluations might further our understanding and appreciation of the popular culture artifact?” (159) limits ideological analysis to the question of “how can we relate the popular culture artifact to the society in which it is found?” (159) rather than addressing the question of “what meanings do the cultural artifact attempt to communicate about/to the society in which it is found?”
Similarly, David Feldman asserts that John Cawelti’s essay “The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Culture” was a “milestone” in American cultural studies scholarship because it “argued that it is possible to ascertain recurrent conventional systems, or ‘formulas,’ in popular literature that are peculiar to a given culture, and suggested that these narrative formulas could tell us much about the dreams, values and often otherwise unarticulated needs of that culture,” but both Feldman and Cawelti stop short of suggesting that these formulas—nevermind the “dreams, values and . . . needs” that they ostensibly reflect—could or should be sites for critique (192). This is not to suggest that work following in the American cultural studies tradition is entirely devoid of ideological criticism. It is simply to point out that ideological analysis was not a founding principle within American cultural studies scholarship in the way that it was within British cultural studies scholarship, which as James Carey suggests “could be described just as easily and perhaps more accurately as ideological studies” (65). Indeed, the central scholarly concern that both defines British cultural studies work and separates it from American cultural studies work is what Stuart Hall, generally considered to be one of the founders of British cultural studies, refers to as the “serious enterprise, or project . . . inscribed in what is sometimes called the ‘political’ aspect of cultural studies” which insists that cultural studies work be work that “matters” on a social, as well as on an intellectual, level (“Cultural Studies” 99).
British cultural studies traces its origins to the work carried out by Hall, Paul Gilroy, Dick Hebdige, Angela McRobbie and others at the Birmingham Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies in England in the 1970s, much of which was concerned with interrogating the ways that subcultural groups appropriated aspects of popular culture for subversive or resistant ends. In this way, while the study of popular culture also was and continues to be central to the project of British cultural studies, cultural studies scholarship in the British tradition has been focused from the beginning on the ways in which popular culture functions as “an arena of consent and resistance” to hegemonic values (Hall, “Notes” 487), and not on elevating its status in the larger culture or facilitating its reception in the academy. It is also worth noting here that, as John Storey cautions, cultural studies work that follows in the intellectual tradition of British cultural studies “cannot (and should not) be reduced to the study of popular culture” (xvi), in spite of the large amount of scholarship focused on popular texts or practices, since popular culture only figures into the discursive aims of British cultural studies to the extent that it serves as a site at which to examine how power operates or how meaning is created within the larger culture, arguably the two theoretical concerns underpinning virtually all scholarship carried out under the banner of British cultural studies. Hall’s “Notes on Deconstructing ‘The Popular’” becomes particularly significant within this regard, because it points to the ways in which the engagement of British cultural studies work with popular culture is not directed at defining or defending “the popular,” as it is in American cultural studies work, but rather in examining “why ‘popular culture’ matters” in terms of political struggles over power and meaning (487).
This theoretical preoccupation within British cultural studies work on questions of “the politics of culture” (Hall, “The Problem of Ideology” 396) is perhaps due to its grounding in Marxist theory. Although, like American cultural studies, British cultural studies is essentially an interdisciplinary endeavor that has incorporated theories and methodologies employed by a variety of other academic fields that also study popular culture—anthropology, sociology, folklore, literary studies and linguistics, to name just a few—the biggest theoretical influences on British cultural studies by far have been Marxism and semiotics. As Storey notes, “Marxism informs [British] cultural studies in two basic ways . . . [British] cultural studies argues that culture’s importance derives from the fact that it helps to constitute the structure and shape the history” through which we interpret and understand the world around us, and “[British] cultural studies assumes that capitalist industrialist societies are societies divided unequally along, for example, ethnic, gender and class lines . . . [and] that culture is one of the principle sites where these divisions are established and contested” (xvi). At the same time, semiotics, particularly as utilized by Roland Barthes in his landmark Mythologies (a foundational text for British cultural studies), provides a framework for understanding how culture functions to “establish or contest” these divisions, since it invests the processes through which meaning is encoded into cultural texts or practices and decoded by audiences/participants (not always in ways that are consonant with one another) with the ability to function as a site at which power is both exercised and resisted.
It should be noted within this context that in the essay “Popular Culture,” Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson identify Marxism and semiotics as primary influences on the study of popular culture within the American cultural studies framework as well. However, while a concern with the political functions and consequences of popular culture texts or practices shows up in some contemporary scholarship undertaken from an American cultural studies perspective, it is almost entirely absent from the foundational theoretical texts collected in the anthology Popular Culture Theory and Methodology, which claims to be a “[chronicle] of the ideas of some of the pioneers of popular culture study” (1) in the American cultural studies tradition compiled by editors working within the same program where the discipline originated—an omission that suggests that to those editors, at least, this theoretical tradition is not as important a disciplinary concern to American cultural studies as it has been (and continues to be) to British cultural studies.
Media studies scholarship situated within a cultural studies framework has drawn from both the American and British schools of cultural studies, resulting in a similar split between analyses of popular media that interrogate its ideological messages and its ideological uses and analyses of popular media that celebrate either its formal qualities or its popular appeal. While these two approaches to the study of popular media both have particular merits, they yield very different kinds of work with very different goals. They also encourage very different kinds of intellectual inquiry, demand very different theoretical and political commitments of their practitioners, and have a very different stake in their execution. While it is not my intention here to argue that media analysis that is only concerned with formalist critique does not matter, I do think that it is work that matters in a different way from media analysis that engages in ideological critique, and how they both matter is a crucial question for those of us who engage in this kind of work. It is on these grounds that I want to argue that ideological critique needs to have a prominent place within the disciplinary concerns of media studies.
Following Hall, I believe that media studies work should also strive to be work that matters on a level beyond just the field of media studies itself. I do not deny that there is a value to the kind of media scholarship that is concerned with applying theories of political economy to an examination of the castaway community on the television series Lost or analyzing the film The Dark Knight as an example of neo-noir visual aesthetics, but if this is the only approach used in analyzing popular media, then its study ends up an insular endeavor that ignores the myriad ways in which media texts (which are not produced and do not circulate in a vacuum) both reflect and shape the values and the practices of the cultures in which they are created. While I don’t think it is necessary that all media studies work engage in ideological critique, I do think it is necessary for media studies work undertaken from a cultural studies perspective to do so. Hall argues that cultural studies work should first and foremost be work that “always thinks about its intervention in a world in which it would make some difference, in which it would have some effect” (“Cultural Studies” 109). Extending this goal to the analysis of popular media is arguably both the greatest contribution and the greatest value of the intersection between the disciplinary concerns of media studies and cultural studies, but working towards that goal requires a commitment on the part of those of us who are engaged in the study of popular media from a cultural studies perspective to move beyond merely celebrating the pleasures of consuming media texts to consciously and critically engaging in examinations of how both our consumption of popular media as cultural consumers and our critique of it as media scholars affects the social and political conditions under which we live our daily lives. Media studies work and cultural studies work may be distinct from one another, but in the critical intersections between media studies and cultural studies both fields are enriched by a focus on the study of popular media that engages the text under analysis with the values, practices and perceptions of both the audiences that consume it and the culture in which it is consumed. It is in this way that, in Hall’s words, both disciplines go about “developing intellectual and theoretical work as a political practice” and not merely as an academic endeavor (“Cultural Studies” 103).
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Bordieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Browne, Ray B. “Popular Culture as the New Humanities,” in Popular Culture Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introduction, eds. Harold E. Hinds, Jr., Marilyn F. Motz and Angela M.S. Nelson. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press/The Popular Press, 2006.
Carey, James W. “Overcoming Resistance to Cultural Studies” in What Is Cultural Studies?: A Reader, ed. John Storey. London: Edward and Arnold, 1996.
Cawelty, John. “The Concept of Formula in the Study of Popular Literature,” in Popular Culture Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introduction, eds. Harold E. Hinds, Jr., Marilyn F. Motz and Angela M.S. Nelson. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press/The Popular Press, 2006.
Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Feldman, David N. “Formalism and Popular Culture,” in Popular Culture Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introduction, eds. Harold E. Hinds, Jr., Marilyn F. Motz and Angela M.S. Nelson. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press/The Popular Press, 2006.
Fiske, John. Television Culture. New York: Routledge, 1988.
Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” in The Cultural Studies Reader (Second Edition), ed. Simon During. New York: Routledge, 2000.
------------ “Notes on Deconstructing ‘the Popular,’” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (Third Edition ), ed. John Storey. Harlow: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2006
------------ “The Problem of Ideology: Marxism Without Guarantees,” in Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, eds. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen. London: Routledge, 1996.
Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Mintz, Lawrence E. “Notes Towards a Methodology of Popular Culture Study,” in Popular Culture Theory and Methodology: A Basic Introductio n, eds. Harold E. Hinds, Jr., Marilyn F. Motz and Angela M.S. Nelson. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press/The Popular Press, 2006.
Morley, David. The Nationwide Audience: Structure and Decoding (BFI Television Monograph No. 11). London: British Film Institute, 1980.
Mukerji, Chandra and Schudson, Michael. “Popular Culture.” Annual Review of Sociology Volume 12 (1986): 47-66.
Penley, Constance. NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America. New York: Verso, 1997.
Storey, John. “Introduction,” in Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (Third Edition), ed. John Storey. Harlow: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2006.